Community Anti Drug Coalitions Are Effective in Many Types of Settings

Last Reviewed: June 20, 2024

Do you have questions about what you and your fellow residents of your county or region can possibly do to help stem the epidemic of substance abuse? We spoke with Dennis Trask, the Youth Prevention Coordinator at Human Service Center in Redbud, Illinois, about community anti drug coalitions. Since drug misuse impacts every aspect of a community, we think this is highly appropriate reading for leaders and members of community organizations.

A Good Community (AGC): What is the chief advantage of forming community coalitions for drug prevention?

Dennis: Drug misuse is something that touches every aspect of a city, every community sector, if you will. We use 12 sectors. If you just sat down and brainstormed them, anyone would come up with these 12 sectors, so there is nothing fancy about them. Since there is so much impact on schools, law enforcement, and on and on, to be effective we have to be engaged with each of these 12 different sectors to get outstanding results.

AGC: While we want this information to be valuable everywhere, can you set the stage for us by describing the program where you work?

Dennis: Yes. My agency, the Human Service Center, is the recipient of the grant money and we are the fiscal agent.

AGC: Which grant money is that?

Dennis: We have a federal Drug-Free Communities grant. We also have a State of Illinois recovery grant, and we also have a foundation grant to focus on prevention of opioid issues. It’s a very nice cherry on top of our prevention efforts.

AGC: What kind of community are you working with?

Dennis: We work with Randolph County and Washington County in Illinois, basically an hour south and east of metro St. Louis. The population total in the two counties is about 44,000 people. It is predominantly Caucasian. Sparta is one town where we have a sizable African-American population. About 20 percent of Sparta is African-American or mixed race, so we do have some diversity. Then in terms of other ethnicities, it's very low, about 1 percent or less. Hispanics are sort of an unseen population. On the data it's much less than 1 percent, but in reality, it's probably larger.

Key Advantage of a Community Anti Drug Coalition

AGC: What are the differences between a coalition approach to drug prevention and one agency determining need and designing a program?

Dennis: That’s a great question. When one agency designs a program, particularly if it’s along the lines of drug treatment (it might be an effort to provide needle exchange, improve active treatment, or make the reception periods for treatment more effective), an agency can try to do something like that all by itself.

With a coalition approach, you can do those things and many others. The advantage of a coalition is that you break down the siloes. The word silo has been around for quite a while in a lot of realms, business, community services, and what not. By using the 12 sectors and getting everyone involved in the planning at the same time and getting everyone’s issues out on the table, you can develop your solutions quickly. If you need law enforcement, they are right there. If you need schools to do something, they are right there.  When you get all 12 sectors working on a problem, you can have more influence, more quickly, with more people, than with one agency.

There is also a tremendous benefit financially. There are all sorts of things that can be done at little or no cost quickly when you have all sectors involved in your project. I could go on and on about the value of the coalition versus a single entity trying to make things happen.

AGC: What types of agencies, programs, and schools are likely to be early participants? Are they relatively easy to attract into the coalition? What does starting the coalition look like?

Dennis: The easy answer on that is that it is really not driven by agency so much as by the people that one is interacting with at the agency or school. If someone sees the value of this, they will say yes. If they don’t see the value, they might not directly say no, but they are going to say no one way or another. You are not going to resolve their question about why would I want to get involved in this.

To me it is all about explaining how effective this is. There is a great body of evidence from more than a decade that community anti-drug coalitions reduce drug misuse. There are more than 2,000 community drug coalitions in the United States of America that have seen reductions of 3, 5, 10, or 20 percent of misuse of drugs by teens, going back to the late 1990s.

So if you just lay this out there to folks that if we do this, we can have the same kind of success that we have seen in terms of reduction of tobacco use and increase in seat belt use. It's very often a matter of who is doing the explaining. If you do a good enough job of that, to help people see the value of the community anti-drug coalition, and that there are strategies that work, it’s really a matter of getting organized, getting the right people involved, and persisting with it over time.

AGC: Can you give us a couple of examples of talking community leaders into becoming really engaged in the coalition?

Dennis: Yes, I think of experiences with two people a few years ago when we were starting this project. We had people of different ages who really asked a lot of hard questions. After the conversation my boss and I were like wow, how is that going to go? We were skeptical ourselves.

It’s interesting how both people, in different ways, became pretty strong supporters. One person was  in law enforcement who became one of our strongest champions. The other was a business person who had different ideas about what would work. He had some typical first glance ideas that scare tactics would work really well with kids, which is absolutely wrong. So we just talked him through that to help him understand that typically you can't scare a high schooler. These people join the military and are willing to go die. Their brains aren't as developed as they are going to be at 25. The military doesn't want people over 25 joining up for the infantry because they won’t do what they need them to do.

AGC: So how did you turn this businessman around?

Dennis: We just kept talking, and we were both I think just honest and open about hearing what the other person had to say, what we thought, and why we thought it. We just walked him through the process of choosing strategies that had a research base and also had been tested. If people don't support us, it’s not going to work because the coalition is not a place where you say OK, we’re going to hire X number of people to do X, no matter what.

AGC: How about the law enforcement officer? What was their skepticism, and how did you turn them around?

Dennis: That person just asked a question about everything that we shared, I think. He had a saying in his office about the goal of policing is not to arrest people, but it’s to prevent crime. It’s from the father of modern policing, head of a group of police chiefs. So, he’s a thoughtful person, and he wanted to know what we were going to do was actually going to make a difference.

When recruiting volunteer coalition members, we used draft job descriptions to give them an idea of the kinds of things we would want them to do. We didn't want to be vague. We said this draft is what we are thinking about. We knew the draft could change at any point in time if people wanted to. The draft said we need people who can come to the meetings X number of times, people to give us their advice, those who can commit their organization to support whatever we all agree to do, and things of that sort. It's really just stuff that anyone would want their board--if it's an engaged, active board, not just a fund-raising board--to do. We did put fund-raising in there as a part of it; we didn’t want to surprise people later and say, oh and by the way, when our grant money is done, we’re going to ask you to help us sustain this a different way. It could be in kind or it could be helping us find other financial resources or board strategies. We didn’t want to lock it in, but we wanted to get fund-raising out there.

Running an Effective Community Coalition

AGC: You mentioned meetings, and I'm sure our readers want to know how many meetings and how much time this is going to take.

Dennis: What we do now is we have 10 full coalition meetings a year. We take July and December off. We are averaging about 20 people or so. We had a dip to 13 in March for a Zoom meeting because of COVID and went back up to 19 for our April meeting.  We’ve been over 15 for the last 2 years now. Early on, we had four or five, got up to nine or ten, and then drifted back to four or five. We were meeting monthly then.

When it got a little more interesting after the first year and a half, we had more things for people to do in terms of parent education activities. There would be mock teen bedrooms at parent-teacher conferences where we would get 30 people pretty easily. Things like that are much more fun.  We display how teens hide drugs for parents and talk with them about how to handle that.

We also started having brief programs at the meetings on topical things. For instance, we had people from another coalition come in and tell the story of how they have been able to maintain their coalition over about a 20 year period after they got the grant that we have now. Now they are functioning without that money, which went away two or three years ago.

We also had a meeting last November where high school kids described their favorite things about prevention efforts at their school. People loved that. Things like that make the meeting more interesting and engaging.

I'll say just a little bit about the structure of the meetings. We have about an hour for our coalition meeting, including the business reports and conversation about those. Those are reports given by a volunteer chair and then staff. Then we have our program. We start at 8AM try to get that done by about 9AM.

Then we move into executive committee meeting, but it is open. If you want to stay, great. It's more a decision-making session, follow-up on whatever came up in the meeting, and then follow-up on previous meetings. Then they make decisions about the next meeting. At this point it’s running about another hour. It was really interesting that the last few times, you had about 20 or 25 for the full coalition meeting and you had about a dozen stay for the executive committee, so people aren't just running for the door. In February we could hardly get them to stop talking about Meth. My theory is that if people want to keep talking, they can talk as long as they want. We’ve covered the business, and it's now your meeting. If they want to keep talking about whatever the topic is, that’s an indicator of life, a desire to do more, trying to tease out how does today’s topic fit in with what we are doing.

AGC: Based on your experience, what are the major challenges for community coalitions for drug prevention?

Dennis: With COVID we are quickly making nearly everything digital.  Social media messaging and video conferencing really works pretty well.  We boost our social media messaging and for $20 a week we get 3,000 views of solid prevention info.  We are still doing newspaper ads because we have 5 popular small-town newspapers available.  The newspaper readers really dig into things.  We are fortunate to get stories published fairly often.

Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) has collected data and analyzed it for the last 25 years. They identified factors that coalitions need. Coalitions need staff. Having at least one staff person that can marshal the operation in some way leads to more results. The money that typically starts these things is from a grant. Very few communities have money that is dedicated to this type of effort. Some coalitions do get started without grant money though.

In Missouri there are probably fewer coalitions functioning with staffing than there are elsewhere in the country because Missouri spends nothing on prevention. It's all federal money that comes to states and goes out to localities; Missouri is a low-service state. I’m working in Illinois, which is a high-service state.

The state of Washington is a high service prevention state. Every county in the state of Washington has a paid coalition staff person to help their community anti-drug coalition, and they have achieved very impressive and very rare things. When they legalized marijuana, teen usage did not go up. Typically it goes up. In the majority of states in the nation have legalized medical and recreational marijuana, teen use goes up. It just stands to reason. When alcohol is more available, when tobacco is more available, usage goes up. Washington has been able to not see teen use go up. In a couple of workshops presented by Washington prevention leaders, they have outlined what they have done, and they are doing what pretty much every state in the nation is doing except they put money into staff for local coalitions at a higher level than other states have.

Convening a Coalition Without Grant Funding

AGC: If one of our readers doesn’t have grant money, what elements of the coalition approach might still work?

Dennis: It doesn’t take much for the people from each of these community sectors to talk. You just have to decide OK; we’re going to pick our own costs and identify what we’re going to do. So you don’t have to have all 12 sectors, you don’t have to make it perfect. Take who you have, and look at some data.

Every state in the nation has a survey that the schools have the option to administer. They used to be required, but it’s gotten very spotty. It was a failure of the Obama administration; they let that go. Back in the late 80’s every school district in the nation was required to survey their students in terms of risk factors for drug use. That worked great for quite some time. But anyway, you want to get your local student misuse data and identify contributing factors. This is where some professional help comes into play. Every state has a resource person to help you with that, so you don’t have to fumble through it yourself.

AGC: To find this resource person, what department of the state would you look for?

Dennis: The Department of Education or the single agency for drug misuse. Usually at least one of those two agencies will have someone who is a point person for this issue, who is responsible for the surveys. They may have contracted the survey out to a university, so they might send you to the university that can get you this data. It is public record. School districts might not want to hand it out, but it is public record. You might be able to access county-wide data, which is perfectly good to use. So you can identify what are the contributing factors that are worth prioritizing.

Very often it is things like kids with a heightened sense of acceptability. They think that their parents accept drugs, that it’s really no big deal relative to their peers in the state and nation. Or parents are not talking to their kids as often about not using as would be needed. So, we want to get some technical assistance from those entities I just described or Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America. This private, non-profit organization is very helpful. If you just search for CADCA, you will find excellent resources to help you get started and help you figure out what you want to do, whether you have money or not.

Involving Youth in Drug Prevention

AGC: What are examples of young people becoming involved?

Dennis: Coalitions that are most often effective involve young people in planning and carrying out prevention strategies. You have to figure out how you are going to make that happen because you don’t want to bore them. It’s too easy to just bore kids and not be with them where they are.

One of the approaches that works pretty well is identifying some kids to give them training to engage young people in what’s going on. In Missouri the National Council on Alcoholism is a great support to make that happen. In Illinois there are others. In many states in the nation there is some sort of key resource to help the kids. CADCA does training as well, so they are a resource.

So do something with your kids and identify what they want to do. Just encourage and support that. Now where it gets difficult, and where some training and technical assistance help, is that you need to look at the survey data so that you choose things well. You want to be shooting at a target instead of just trying to throw spaghetti on the wall. Throwing spaghetti on the wall—well, you can try that, but it will just take you longer to figure out which string of spaghetti is really the one you want to choose. A little targeting will help make these efforts more sustainable.

AGC: When you talk about young people, what ages do you mean?

Dennis: High schoolers. Start with high schoolers. When you do get that rolling really well, one of the things you look to is to encourage high schoolers to engage middle schoolers, and then middle schoolers to work with early elementary kids. Then you have a full pre-K to grade 12 engagement of young people.

AGC: Are schools cooperative about letting kids participate during the school day?

Dennis: My experience is that when they see the value of this, the schools are pretty much all in. Schools for the most part know there is an issue here. Unfortunately, they are often unaware of effective prevention strategies.  Someone has to explain how prevention works.  As a former Professional School Counselor, I explain as similar to an effective School Counselor program.  Which by the way is another highly effective method to help students succeed.

You're not always going to get a yes obviously; sometimes you just have to keep looking for that person in the school who finds it appealing and sees the integration with what they are already doing. That might be a school principal, a school counselor, a coach, or a school social worker. It could be any person who just has some affinity for the issue and a willingness to work and be persistent.

Almost every school has multiple classes where state and federal requirements say you're going to have drug misuse prevention curriculum, so finding who is over that is another avenue to check. Sometimes that is the school counselor, a health teacher, or sometimes the curriculum coordinator. It's a bit variable. Sometimes the principal is the one driving the instruction, or sometimes it’s the advisor to what was formerly known as the SADD chapter.

AGC: Thank you, Dennis. We urge our readers to make contact with their local community anti drug coalition, or if they don't find one, to start one. The approach of bringing multiple sectors of the community together in one place at one time is quite fruitful in many aspects of community development, and it seems as though this is doubly true for preventing teen drug misuse.

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