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Most in Treatment for Marijuana Were Referred By Criminal Justice System, Federal Data Shows

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A familiar talking point deployed by supporters of marijuana prohibition focuses on the seemingly large share of people in drug treatment who are seeking help for a cannabis use disorder.

A new federal study sheds some light on how meaningful — or not meaningful — that claim really is.

Nearly 52 percent of people in drug treatment primarily for marijuana were referred by the criminal justice system, according to the latest Treatment Episode Data Set, which was released last Thursday. Fewer than one out of five people in treatment for marijuana checked themselves in voluntarily or were referred by another individual.

Among the criminal justice referrals, 44.1 percent were from probation or parole officers, 16.2 percent were from courts and 2.2 percent were from prisons, according to the new study published by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Full data available in Table 2.6 here.)

“Primary marijuana admissions were less likely than all admissions [for other drugs]combined to be self- or individually referred to treatment (18 vs. 37 percent),” the study found. “Primary marijuana admissions were most likely to be referred by a criminal justice source.”

In other words, many cannabis consumers are being forced by cops, courts and corrections officers to undergo drug treatment that they themselves don’t feel they actually need.

At a time when America is experiencing an epidemic of opioid overdoses, drug policy reform advocates have questioned whether it makes sense for the criminal justice system to mandate that cannabis users take up so much space in drug treatment programs.

According to a separate federal study, nearly 22.5 million people in the U.S. met the criteria for a substance use disorder requiring treatment, but just over one in ten of such individuals actually received treatment. (See Table 5.51A in the PDF linked above)

The new data on admissions and referrals shows that even among people who are able to get treatment, many have to wait to be admitted. Thirty-eight percent of people seeking treatment for any substance had to wait at least a day to be admitted, with 9.2 percent having to wait at least two weeks. (See Table 2.14 here.)

That kind of delay can make a crucial difference; if people dealing with severe substance misuse disorders don’t get help as soon as they realize they need it, some will change their minds or relapse.

While some people do in fact develop a dependency on marijuana that negatively impacts their lives and can be helped with treatment, the vast majority of people who consume cannabis do so without problems.

The new federal data shows that legalizing marijuana — and taking its users out of the criminal justice system — could free up space in drug treatment programs for people who actually want and need help.

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