The Forgotten Fifth: Rural Youth and Substance Abuse

47 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2008 Last revised: 15 Jul 2009

See all articles by Lisa R. Pruitt

Lisa R. Pruitt

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: October 6, 2008


In this article, Professor Pruitt seeks to raise the visibility of the roughly twenty percent of our population who live in rural America - an often forgotten fifth - in relation to the particular challenges presented by adolescent substance abuse. Despite popular notions that substance abuse is essentially an urban phenomenon, recent data demonstrate that it is also a significant problem in rural America. Rural youth now abuse most substances, including alcohol and tobacco, at higher rates and at younger ages than their urban peers.

Written for a symposium on drug policy, Pruitt assesses the social, economic and spatial milieu in which rural adolescent substance abuse has burgeoned. Some features of rural communities, such as a tolerance for youth and lenient and informal law enforcement responses, appear to be beneficial to youth there. Indeed, these are consistent with juvenile justice trends, such as diversion programs. Yet other characteristics of rural communities, such as limited social service and healthcare infrastructures, undermine the efficacy of such programs. Additional challenges are posed by the depressed socioeconomic conditions in many rural areas.

Arguing that national drug policies often reflect urban agendas and leave rural communities disserved, Pruitt calls for policies that are more sensitive to rural contexts and that will respond more effectively to this social problem there. She advocates nuanced empirical research that will provide a more comprehensive understanding of rural risk factors and, in turn, inform rural prevention, treatment, and diversion programs. Finally, she argues that federal, state and local responses to adolescent substance abuse must tackle deficiencies in rural infrastructure, while keeping in mind factors that differentiate rural places from what has become the implicit urban norm in law- and policy-making.

Keywords: crime, juvenile justice, rural, urban, geography, drug abuse, drug use, substance abuse, youth, children, adolescent, diversion program, socioeconomic class, community

Suggested Citation

Pruitt, Lisa R., The Forgotten Fifth: Rural Youth and Substance Abuse (October 6, 2008). Stanford Law & Policy Review, Vol. 20, p. 259, 2009, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 150, Available at SSRN:

Lisa R. Pruitt (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States

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