News Release

Study finds brief interventions ineffective for reducing unhealthy drug use

Peer-Reviewed Publication

JAMA Network

Richard Saitz, M.D., of the Boston University School of Public Health, and colleagues tested the effectiveness of two brief counseling interventions for unhealthy drug use (any illicit drug use or prescription drug misuse) among primary care patients identified by screening.

The United States has invested substantially in screening and brief intervention for illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse, based in part on evidence of efficacy for unhealthy alcohol use. However, it is not a recommended universal preventive service in primary care because of lack of evidence of efficacy, according to background information in the article.

The researchers randomly assigned 528 adult primary care patients with unhealthy drug use to one of three groups: to receive a brief negotiated interview (BNI), which was a 10- to 15-minute structured interview conducted by health educators; an adaptation of motivational interviewing (MOTIV), which was a 30- to 45-minute intervention based on motivational interviewing with a 20- to 30-minute booster conducted by masters-level counselors; or no brief intervention. All study participants received a written list of substance use disorder treatment and mutual help resources. At the beginning of the study, 63 percent of participants reported their main drug was marijuana, 19 percent cocaine, and 17 percent opioids.

For the primary outcome (number of days of use in the past 30 days of the self-identified main drug), there were no significant differences between the BNI, MOTIV or control groups (adjusted average days using the main drug at 6 months, 11, 12 and 12 days, respectively). In addition, there were no significant between-group differences overall or in stratified analyses at 6 weeks or 6 months in drug use consequences, injection drug use, unsafe sex, health care utilization (hospitalizations and emergency department visits, overall or for addiction or mental health reasons), or mutual help group attendance.

The authors write that despite the potential for benefit with a brief intervention, drug use differs from unhealthy alcohol use in that it is often illegal and socially unacceptable, and is diverse—from occasional marijuana use, which was illegal during this study, to numerous daily heroin injections. "Prescription drug misuse is particularly complex, with diagnostic confusion between misuse for symptoms (e.g., pain, anxiety), euphoria-seeking, and drug diversion. Brief counseling may simply be inadequate to address these complexities, even as an initial strategy."

"These results do not support widespread implementation of illicit drug use and prescription drug misuse screening and brief intervention."

(doi:10.1001/jama.2014.7862; Available pre-embargo to the media at

Editor's Note: Please see the article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

There will also be a digital news release available for this study, including the JAMA Report video, embedded and downloadable video, audio files, text, documents, and related links. This content will be available at 3 p.m. CT Tuesday, August 5 at this link.

Editorial: Screening and Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment for Drug Use in Primary Care - Back to the Drawing Board

In an accompanying editorial, Ralph Hingson, Sc.D., M.P.H., of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Bethesda, Md., and Wilson M. Compton, M.D., M.P.E., of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Rockville, Md., comment on the findings of these studies.

"Although these studies offer no direct evidence of effectiveness for universal drug screening, brief intervention, and referral to treatment in primary care settings, exploring drug use with patients should remain a priority in primary care. The goal for clinical research is to develop and test new interventions with potential for benefiting patients. Drug screening and brief intervention research that focuses on adolescents and young adults is especially needed because rates of marijuana use among young people and the potency of marijuana have increased at the same time that recognition among youth of the health risks of marijuana use have declined."

"If brief interventions are insufficient, then easily accessible treatment services with long-term follow-up may be needed, as will development of efficient primary care referral approaches to address risky substance use and related physical and mental comorbidities."

(doi:10.1001/jama.2014.7863; Available pre-embargo to the media at

Editor's Note: Both authors have completed and submitted the ICMJE Form for Disclosure of Potential Conflicts of Interest and none were reported.


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