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Detecting Substance Use Problems Before Addiction Develops

Preventing the development of substance use disorders is fundamental to the Obama Administration’s approach to drug policy. Today the Director announced a $22M grant for prevention.

Preventing the development of substance use disorders is fundamental to the Obama Administration’s approach to drug policy. If problematic substance use can be detected, interrupted, and treated before it reaches the “tipping point” to become a serious health problem, then the consequences of substance dependence can be avoided. By intervening early, we can reduce the harmful consequences of substance use.

This common-sense approach is the principle behind Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT), an innovative program supported by grants from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).The goal of the program is to deliver early intervention and treatment services in traditional healthcare settings to people with, or at risk of developing, substance use disorders.

With today’s announcement of $22 million in new SAMHSA funding to expand the program, the promise of SBIRT to prevent substance use disorders moved closer to reality for many Americans. The awards went to three states – New Jersey, Arizona, and Iowa – each of which will receive up to $7.5 million for as many as 5 years to implement SBIRT.

The SBIRT program equips primary care centers, hospital emergency rooms, trauma centers, and other community settings with the ability to intervene early with at-risk substance users before more severe consequences occur. Healthcare providers using SBIRT screen patients by asking patients about their substance use during routine medical visits. They provide medical advice and, if appropriate, refer patients who are deemed to be at risk of substance use problems to treatment. In this way, SBIRT helps identify people with underlying substance abuse problems that might otherwise go unnoticed and untreated, then puts them on the road to recovery before their drug use becomes a life-threatening or criminal justice issue.

SBIRT exemplifies the medical, prevention-based approach to the drug problem outlined in the 2012 National Drug Control Strategy.  It’s part of our “third way” forward in drug policy—a path defined by evidence-based strategies and a public health approach to America’s drug problem.

We can be proud of the progress we have made in reducing substance use in America. The rate of overall drug use in the United States has plunged by roughly 30 percent since 1979, with a 40 percent decline in the rate of cocaine use just within the past four years. SBIRT represents the future of this continued progress, and we look forward to working with partners in government and in the health communities to implement this innovative program.