San Diego, CA – The County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency has funded a new service to help combat one of San Diego’s largest and most dangerous public health problems: teen drug abuse. The service, administered by three partnering agencies – McAlister Institute, Mental Health Systems, and Phoenix House – will provide a free initial drug test for teens in the San Diego region.

According to the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA), three-fourths of high school students—75.6 percent or 10.0 million—have used addictive substances including cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or cocaine. Among San Diego’s teens, 33.0 percent have used alcohol, 24.0 percent have used marijuana, and 13.9 percent have used a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription within the last 30 days. Importantly, teen users are at significantly higher risk of developing an addictive disorder compared to adults, and the earlier they begin using, the higher their risk.

Jeanne McAlister, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of McAlister Institute, explains, “Adolescence is the critical period both for starting to smoke, drink, or use other drugs and for experiencing more harmful consequences as a result. The teen brain is primed to take risks including experimenting with these substances and, because it is still developing, it is more vulnerable to their harmful effects.”

In fact, data collected through the 2009-2011 California Healthy Kids Survey shows that, on average, young people who initiate any drug use before the age of 15 appear to have twice the risk of experiencing drug problems during their lifetime, compared to those who wait until after the age of 19. Early drug and alcohol users are also at greater risk of not graduating from high school, delinquency, having multiple sexual partners, not always using condoms, perceiving drugs as not harmful, and having more friends who exhibit deviant behavior.

“For parents, these numbers are truly frightening,” she added. “It is such a large problem among our children, but it can be difficult to figure out what to do or where to turn when you suspect your teen is in need of help.”

Luckily, McAlister Institute and three other partnering agencies are among the resources available to teens and their families.

McAlister emphasized that this new Free Initial Drug Test is an important tool for parents to help identify whether their child is using drugs so they can make an informed decision about next steps such as intervention and treatment options.

McAlister Institute’s Teen Recovery Centers, for example, offer outpatient treatment and recovery services specifically designed for adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17. Mental Health Systems, Palavra Tree, and Phoenix House offer similar services and locations as well.

Specific testing locations, phone numbers and hours of operation can be found at

Each of the partners may offer different testing protocols, from instant urine tests that offer quick results, to tests involving lab analysis of hair follicles, saliva, and blood.  “The important thing,” McAlister said, “is to have your teen tested as early as possible if you suspect he or she is under the influence or engaged in drug use. Early intervention substantially improves our ability to reduce the dangerous consequences of drug abuse, including accidents, injuries, medical problems, criminal involvement and even death.”

The following is a list of warning signs that parents can use to determine if their teen should come in for a no-cost drug test:

  • Drastic change in peer group. Teens abusing drugs often abandon peer groups in favor of those who share similar desires and behaviors, namely engaging in drug use.
  • Lack of motivation or ambition. Participation in activities that once excited the teen – such as sports, social groups, hobbies, and other pursuits – may wane or even cease entirely.
  • Unpredictable behavior, including mood changes and mood swings.
  • Drastic changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns. Nervousness, insomnia, loss of appetite, weight loss, and increased energy may be signs of stimulant use, while fatigue, poor concentration, impaired coordination and memory, slow breathing, and nausea may be signs of opioid or depressant use. Teens using marijuana may have bloodshot eyes, slowed speech, lack of concentration, increased appetite, and impaired coordination and memory.
  • Falling grades. Performance in school often suffers as the result of drug use. Despite increasing discipline and attendance problems, the teen may show a lack of interest or be apathetic towards his/her decline.
  • Significant changes in appearance. Teens may begin to wear sunglasses and hats indoors, and clothing may promote drug/alcohol culture (e.g., Rastafarian colors or marijuana leaves). Personal hygiene may also begin to suffer as he/she is less concerned with public appearance.
  • Increased use of coded language with friends. Phrases like “four-twenty” and “getting baked” are slang terms for getting high.
  • Missing items. Money, lighters, foil, eye drops, prescriptions, and over-the-counter drugs may begin to disappear.
  • Increased use of incense, room deodorant, perfume, and/or gum. This is often an attempt to cover up alcohol/smoke odors.
  • Depressive mood. Marijuana users often exhibit many of the same characteristics as those suffering from depression, including apparent laziness and a flat affect.
  • Avoidant behavior. This includes increased secrecy about possessions or activities and withdrawal from the family system.

If you are concerned about someone’s substance abuse, call the San Diego Access and Crisis Line at 888-724-7240, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We hope that teens and parents will use the resource that’s being offered to them by the County as part of Live Well, San Diego!” McAlister said. “The adolescent years are a tough time—for teens and parents alike—and the drug tests may be exactly what a teen needs to resist the mounting peer pressure and say, ‘I don’t want to do that. My parents drug test me.’ This service can be a real tool in keeping our communities and our kids drug-free and healthy.”


About McAlister Institute

McAlister Institute has earned recognition as one of San Diego County leading resources for the compassionate care and treatment of individuals and families suffering from addiction, mental illness, and homelessness. Founded in 1977, we dedicate ourselves to having a positive impact on all those who come to us, helping restore them to more productive and meaningful lives. For additional information on McAlister Institute, please visit


Media Contact:

Alyssa Enwright ( 858-453-9600

Vince Heald ( (858) 453-9600