Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)


If laws and regulations are going to deter people and businesses from illegal behaviors, they must be accompanied by significant penalties, and they must be enforced, through surveillance, community policing, and arrests. Think about it—a lot more people would speed if speeding tickets cost only $5 or if police didn’t use radar guns. Instead, drivers who might otherwise speed are deterred by the possibility of being pulled over and receiving a big fine and insurance penalties. It is the application of penalties that makes the difference.

Enforcement and policy are closely connected, but there are important reasons to draw a distinction between them. We separate policy and enforcement for three reasons:

  • First, policy alone does not imply enforcement. A policy on the books won’t have any impact unless it is enforced.
  • Second, enforcement alone won’t work if the policy isn’t appropriate or isn’t accepted by the general population.
  • Third, policy and enforcement are designed and implemented by two different systems. The legislative or organizational system makes policy, but the justice or law enforcement system enforces it. It is important to acknowledge these two separate systems and bring both parties to the table.

Enforcement strategies can be broken down into four major categories:

As prevention practitioners, there are many ways to use enforcement to strengthen prevention programs. For example:

  • Educate policymakers and law enforcement agencies about the proven effectiveness of enforcement.
  • Generate public understanding of—and support for—the need to enforce youth drug and alcohol laws.
  • Collaborate with businesses, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system to ensure that youth alcohol, tobacco, and drug use are taken seriously and that the laws are understood and enforced.
  • Publicize the health risks and penal consequences associated with youth substance use.
  • Advocate for ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of federal, state, local, and organizational policies.
  • Implement community-level interventions, such as the undercover buying operations, neighborhood watches, and nuisance abatement programs described above.

The key to effective enforcement is visibility: People need to see that substance use prevention is a community priority and that violations of related laws and regulations will not be tolerated.

Developed under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies contract (Reference #HHSS277200800004C).