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Agency for Healthcare Research Quality

Screening for Illicit Drug Use

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

Release Date: January 2008

Summary of Recommendations / Supporting Documents

Summary of Recommendations

  • The USPSTF concludes that the current evidence is insufficient to assess the balance of benefits and harms of screening adolescents, adults, and pregnant women for illicit drug use. (This is a grade "I" statement)


Importance:  Illicit drug use and abuse are serious problems among adolescents, adults, and pregnant women in the United States, ranking among the 10 leading preventable risk factors for years of healthy life lost to death and disability in developed countries.  (Please note that tobacco use and alcohol misuse are considered in separate screening recommendations of the USPSTF.)

Detection:  While standardized questionnaires to screen adolescents and adults for drug use/misuse have been shown to be valid and reliable, there is insufficient evidence to assess the clinical utility of these instruments when applied widely in primary care settings.

Benefits of detection and early treatment:  There is good evidence that various treatments are effective in reducing illicit drug use in the short term. Evidence is insufficient, however, either to demonstrate that treatment reliably improves social and legal outcomes for patients, or to link treatment directly to longer term improvements in morbidity or mortality. Since all but one published clinical trial of treatment interventions involved individuals who had already developed problems due to their drug use, it is not known whether the findings are generalizabe to asymptomatic individuals whose illicit drug use is detected through screening. There is fair evidence that, regardless of the patient's history of treatment, reducing or stopping drug use is associated with improvement in some health outcomes. 

Harms of detection and early treatment:  There is little evidence of harms associated with either screening for illicit drug use or behavioral interventions used in treatment. Several clinical trials of pharmacotherapy for drug misuse have reported mild to serious adverse events, although some of these events were likely related to underlying drug use. The specific adverse events noted to occur more frequently in the treatment arm of trials (compared to placebo) have been previously recognized as potential side effects of the treatment medication and cited on its product label.

USPSTF assessment: The USPSTF concludes that for adolescents, adults, and pregnant women, the evidence is insufficient to determine the benefits and harms of screening for illicit drug use. 

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Supporting Documents

Recommendation Statement (PDF File, 55 KB; PDF Help)
Systematic Review (PDF File, 2 MB; PDF Help)
Supplemental Evidence Update (PDF File, 230 KB; PDF Help)

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Current as of January 2008

Internet Citation:

Screening for Illicit Drug Use, Topic Page. January 2008. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.


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