Studies show that more than 7 percent of people aged 12–17 and nearly 25 percent of those aged 18–25 use marijuana, while more than 10 percent of 12–17 year olds and 73 percent of 18–25 year olds consume alcohol. At such young ages the brain is still developing, and alcohol and marijuana can have a detrimental effect. Substance use can also contribute to poor decision making and impaired judgment, which in turn can lead to risky behaviors such as drunk driving or having unprotected sex.
Finding the right program, policy, or effort to effectively reach young people can be a challenge. Unique circumstances and demographics, such as the presence of a large university, can increase the number of 18-21 year olds in a given community.
Informing Prevention Efforts through Community-Based Meetings
To address this challenge, in 2011 the District of Columbia Department of Behavioral Health turned to RTI as their evaluation and epidemiological outcomes workgroup partner on the District’s Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant (SPF SIG) to identify methods and develop tools to help communities find ways to keep teens and young adults from using marijuana and alcohol.
The result—Community Conversations—is a qualitative framework for gaining insights into marijuana and alcohol use through community-based meetings and discussions. The framework focuses on youth and young adults under 21 and aims to inform new prevention programs, policies, and outreach efforts at the community level.
We provided training and clearly defined tools such as templates and a workbook to help local community representatives consistently gather scientifically valid, community-specific data.
Community Conversations provides direct guidelines for interacting with community members and gathering information. The specific practices and processes ensure that information and data collected through the conversations meet the standards for public health research and scientific analysis. Relying on local community officials to collect the data creates a much larger and broader data set than researchers and public health officials alone could build. Also, the process reduces costs, as public health researchers are not required to go into the field to gather data.
Filling in Data Gaps at the Local Level
Several national studies compile data on drug and alcohol use by young people on an annual basis, but the data are not perfect for multiple reasons:
- It often takes two years for data to be collected, analyzed, and released—a delay that fails to capture new and emerging trends.
- Data are provided at the city, state, and national levels. Such macro-level data fail to capture nuances across a single city.
- While existing data can show trends in usage, they do not provide insight into specific causes or factors driving those trends.
Community Conversations fills in some of those data gaps by providing immediate results and deeper insights into what is going on at the local level. Through meetings at community centers, health department offices, or churches, community officials gain a better sense of key drivers, emerging trends, and variations within a city.
Community Insights Inform Local Policy and Prevention Programs
The Community Conversations methodology is demonstrating a measurable impact on the District of Columbia’s efforts to curtail the use of marijuana and alcohol by those under age 21, most notably on the use of synthetic marijuana.
Through several Community Conversations meetings, researchers learned about the increased use of synthetic marijuana, a substance still legal in the District of Columbia at the time, and how people acquire it. Armed with this information, public health officials were able to identify ways to deal with the problem, including banning the sale and use of synthetic marijuana.
To build on this early success, the Department of Behavioral Health intends to hold regular Community Conversations across the district’s eight wards—including at least four conversations each year in partnership with the department’s local prevention centers.
The district will use insights gained from these conversations to direct policy changes and inform new prevention programs, policies, and practices.