Opponents of marijuana legalization often cite the "skyrocketing" number of people seeking treatment for marijuana addiction in their arguments. Project SAM, the nation's leading anti-legalization group, notes with some alarm that "data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that in 1993, marijuana comprised approximately 8 percent of ALL treatment admissions, but by 2009 that number had increased to 18 percent."
But new data out this month from the Department of Health and Human Services provides some important context behind those numbers. In 2013, more than half of marijuana users in treatment were sent there by the courts or the criminal justice system. That's more than the share of court-ordered referrals for any other drug, including far more deadly ones like alcohol and heroin.
Overall, fewer than 1 in 5 marijuana treatment seekers checked themselves in voluntarily. That too is a lower share than for any other drug.
"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," wrote legalization advocate Tom Angell last week.
Keith Humphreys, a researcher and addiction specialist with Stanford University, said in an email that "being addicted to [marijuana] is generally less impairing than being addicted to heroin/cocaine, so people have relatively less interest in attending treatment on their own." He also notes that the criminal justice system is typically "more merciful" to marijuana dealers — where a person convicted of selling pot may be sent to treatment, a heroin or meth dealer is likely to be jail instead.
Angell argues that the large numbers of people ordered into marijuana treatment could delay access to treatment for users of harder drugs. HHS data shows that nearly 40 percent of those seeking treatment had to wait a day or more to be admitted. More than 15 percent faced waits of a week or more — time that can be the difference between life and death for people in dire circumstances.
The HHS data shows that marijuana users accounted for more than a quarter of all drug treatment admissions in 2013, which means that court-ordered marijuana treatment is taking up more than 1 out of every 10 beds in the nation's drug treatment facilities — at a time when prescription painkillers and heroin are killing record numbers of Americans.
It's also worth pointing out that only 9 percent of people who try marijuana ever become dependent on it. Even those who do become dependent, or who otherwise develop problematic use, typically don't need formal treatment to find their way out of the problem.
"Natural recovery — also called 'self-change' or 'spontaneous remission' — is the most frequent exit from all manner of problem behaviors, including abuse of, or dependency on, alcohol, illicit drugs, cigarettes, shopping and gambling," write drug policy experts Mark Kleiman, Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken in their book "Drugs and Drug Policy: What everyone needs to know."
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