Reliable Answers - News and Commentary

Most Marijuana Users in Drug Treatment
Sent There By Criminal Justice System

Updated: October 28, 2005
Posted: July 1, 2005

In March, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released a study finding that the number of people entering drug treatment for marijuana-related problems had increased dramatically during the decade from 1992 to 2002. Federal anti-drug bureaucrats campaigning to frame marijuana as a dangerous drug quickly latched on to the report as more fodder for their crusade.

"This report is a wake-up call for parents that marijuana is not a soft drug," said Tom Riley, a spokesman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) when the March report came out. "It's a much bigger part of the addiction problem than is generally understood."

The 2005 International Drug Policy Reform Conference

In a March 10 "open letter" to parents that ran in more than 300 newspapers nationwide, ONCDP head John Walters (the drug czar) used the SAMSHA numbers to warn that marijuana is "addictive" and that "more teens are in treatment with a primary diagnosis of marijuana dependence than for all other illicit drugs combined." (Bizarrely, he also tried to blame the dreaded "BC Bud," with its alleged high potency, for part of the increase, even though -- sorry, Canadian chauvinists -- BC Bud is no different from or more powerful than high-grade marijuana grown in the United States.)

Table 1. Marijuana Admissions, by Referral Source: 2002

Primary Source of Referral






Alcohol/Drug Abuse Care Provider



Other Health Care Provider









Other Community Referral



Criminal Justice System






Source: 2002 SAMHSA Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) and 6/24/05 DASIS report.

But while Walters and his crew warned that Reefer Madness was sending a generation into drug treatment, a new SAMHSA report released this week showed that the majority of people getting treatment for marijuana were not there because they or their families or their doctors or counselors thought they needed treatment, but simply because they had been arrested. According to SAMHSA's June 24 Drug and Alcohol Services Information System (DASIS) report, 58% of all marijuana treatment referrals came from the criminal justice system.

"These numbers essentially reaffirm what we've been saying for years -- that the purported increase in marijuana treatment admissions is not due to any increased potency or even people checking themselves in voluntarily, but almost exclusively to the increase in the number of people arrested, who are then given the choice of treatment or serving time in jail," said Paul Armentano, senior policy analyst for the National Association for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Naturally, they take treatment."

According to the DASIS Report, they are doing so in huge numbers. Judges sent more than 160,000 marijuana offenders into drug treatment in 2002. That is a little less than one out of four of the nearly 700,000 Americans arrested on marijuana charges that year.

By contrast, only about 47,000, or 17% of people in treatment for marijuana, thought they had a problem bad enough to refer themselves. Another 10% were referred by drug abuse or health care providers and 5% by their school or employer. The final 10% were "other community referral," which in many cases probably means parents.

Interestingly, the DASIS numbers showed that people forced into treatment by the criminal justice system were less likely to show signs of problematic drug use than those who weren't. Criminal justice system referrals were more likely to be employed (43% to 32%). On the other hand, they were less likely to have used marijuana in the last month (60% to 73%) or on a daily basis (23% to 32%), and less likely to report using other drugs (33% to 37%), or daily use of other drugs.

But pot smokers who get busted are getting treatment whether they need it or not -- and many clearly don't. "The average age of those people admitted to marijuana treatment through the criminal justice system is 23," Armentano noted. "That is right in line with the research we did on arrests, where we found that 74% of all persons arrested for possession are under age 30. These younger, first-time offenders are the people being coerced into treatment instead of jail, but they are not the kind of people we think of when we think of people who need or desire treatment."

And while last Friday's DASIS Report contained relatively high past month usage figures, according to SAMHSA's own data on drug treatment, the Treatment Episodes Data Sets in 2002, 34.6% of those who underwent treatment for marijuana "dependency" had not even used the drug in the previous month and 16.1% had used it from one to three times. "More than half the people in treatment for alleged marijuana dependency smoked three times or less in the month prior to admission," exclaimed Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Give me a flipping break!"

The increase in people getting treatment for marijuana is a more a function of increasing marijuana arrests than anything, Mirken suggested. Indeed, during the period when marijuana treatment was skyrocketing, so were arrests, with the annual number climbing from 340,000 in 1992 to almost 700,000 in 2002. "These treatment numbers are an artifact of all those arrests, which have been escalating for the last decade," he said. "The government arrests these people, forces them into treatment, and then uses those numbers as 'proof' of how dangerously addictive marijuana is. That is a truly Orwellian formulation."

"Walters wants it both ways," said NORML's Armentano. "He wants to say that not many people go to jail for marijuana, when the fact is they're not going to jail because they're being sent to treatment. And then he wants to use those numbers to falsely imply that marijuana is more dangerous and that's why all those people are in treatment. The reality is that arrests have doubled and we've seen a proportionate rise in the numbers forced into treatment."

People forced into drug treatment by the courts for getting caught with pot are taking up valuable treatment resources, said Armentano. "People who work in drug treatment are scrambling to find beds to put people in, especially for hard drug abuse, when those beds are filled by people who don't meet any clinical definition of requiring treatment, but are just looking for an alternative to jail."

While there is profit to be made treating people who are ordered there by the courts for marijuana offenses, some treatment providers would just as soon not have to deal with them. "We get our share of people forced into treatment," said Kirby Dean, cofounder and president of the Pacific Hills treatment center in San Juan Capistrano, California. "But people who are coming here to avoid jail are less likely to be interested in staying clean and sober," he told DRCNet.

"My guess is that most people in the criminal justice system regard drug treatment as more humane than incarceration, and they think they're doing people a favor," said MPP's Mirken. "In some cases, they may be. But there are occasional pot smokers taking up treatment slots that could be used by someone with a real drug problem. If would be really unfortunate if someone who really needs help isn't getting a place because someone else got caught with a joint."

Special thanks to the Drug War Chronicle from granting permission to repost this article. Contact: the Drug Reform Coordination Network,
P.O. Box 18402, Washington, DC 20036,
(202) 293-8340 (voice),
(202) 293-8344 (fax),
E-mail DRCNet.

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