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March 9, 2005 - (US Web)

Marijuana Users In Treatment: Unraveling The Federal Spin

By Doug McVay, Common Sense for Drug Policy (Note: For a more complete report with links and citations, please visit Common Sense for Drug Policy's report here:

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration ( SAMHSA ) in March 2005 released a report on the number of marijuana users referred to drug treatment from 1992 through 2002. According to SAMHSA, "Admission rates for primary marijuana increased nationally by 162 percent between 1992 and 2002." SAMHSA estimated that "[T]he number of marijuana admissions per year more than tripled in this time period. In the same period, the proportion of marijuana admissions increased from 6 percent of all admissions to 15 percent of all admissions."

Some officials have spun these numbers to try and show that marijuana is a serious drug threat. Unraveling their spin reveals the less-than-earth-shattering reality behind the figures.

First, annual marijuana arrests skyrocketed between 1992 and 2002. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, in the US in 2002 there were 697,082 marijuana arrests compared with only 342,314 in 1992. More marijuana arrests mean more marijuana users in the criminal justice system.

Second, more drug-using offenders in general are being sent to treatment. Since 1992, the criminal justice system has enthusiastically embraced the treatment-alternative-to-incarceration/drug court approach in handling drug-using offenders. The Drug Court Clearinghouse at American University reports that in 1992 there were a total of ten drug courts operating in the US; by 2002 that number had grown to 1,086.

In addition, in 2000 California voters approved Prop 36, a law allowing people with 1st and 2nd time nonviolent, simple drug possession convictions to receive drug treatment instead of incarceration. Efforts are ongoing in other states to enact similar legislation.

The growth in the number of marijuana users going to treatment since 1992 was inevitable; given the tremendous increase in arrests and in drug courts, it's surprising that the number isn't even higher. The question is whether treatment is appropriate for these offenders. Are they seeking treatment because they see it as a preferred alternative to a criminal record along with a fine and/or incarceration or an extended probation?

The criminal justice system has grown as a factor in marijuana treatment admissions since 1992. The data source SAMHSA used for their report reveals that in 1992 less than half of those reporting marijuana as their primary substance had been referred to treatment through the criminal justice system. In 2002, 58.1% of those reporting marijuana as their primary substance were referred to treatment that way. Of those reporting primary drugs other than marijuana only about a third were referred by the criminal justice system, the proportion growing only slightly over those years.

The SAMHSA study only looked at what people reported as their primary substance of abuse at admission to treatment, not what they were diagnosed with after admission. The data on clinical diagnoses are incomplete, but the available data show that of those reporting marijuana as their primary substance of abuse from 1992 through 2002, only 35.4% were diagnosed with cannabis dependence; 24.7% were diagnosed with mere cannabis abuse. More than 20% of these so-called marijuana users were diagnosed with opioid dependence.

What does it all mean? No one disputes the fact that it is possible for people to abuse marijuana, however the problem is obviously less significant than is being portrayed by the feds. The ultimate question is whether the potential for abuse is so great that marijuana should be dealt with as a criminal problem, as we do heroin and cocaine, or as a public health issue as we do alcohol and tobacco. The debate is difficult enough for the public without the issues being obscured by the political spin being given to research.

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