Pot Arrests Fueling Drug Treatment Gravy Train

Marijuana prohibition continues to be a windfall for drug treatment providers. According to the most recent figures published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly six out of ten (57 percent) persons referred to treatment for marijuana as their 'primary substance of abuse,' were referred there by the criminal justice system.

By contrast, criminal justice referrals for all drugs accounted for just 37 percent of the overall total of drug treatment admissions in 2008.

"Primary marijuana admissions were less likely than all admissions combined to be self-referred to treatment," the study found. Specifically, the reported noted that only 15 percent of marijuana treatment admissions were self-referred (a category that includes individual self-referrals, as well as referrals by friends and family). This percentage is less than half the number of self-referrals for alcohol and cocaine, and about one-quarter the number of self-referrals reported for heroin abuse (56 percent).

Given the longstanding criticism that America's drug treatment resources are woefully underfunded and unable to meet demand, it is shocking and shameful that so many of these facilities are being used to warehouse minor marijuana offenders whose sole criteria for admission is that they ran afoul of the criminal law. Yet since 1998 the percentage of individuals in drug treatment primarily for marijuana has risen approximately 25 percent -- even though the proportion of marijuana treatment admissions from all sources other than the criminal justice system has been declining since the mid-1990s.

In fact, as I wrote earlier this year ("The Feds Are Addicted to Pot -- Even If You Aren't"), some 37 percent of the estimated 288,000 thousand people who entered drug treatment for cannabis in 2007 (the most recent for which data is available) had not reported using it in the 30 days previous to their admission. Another 16 percent of those admitted said that they'd used marijuana three times or fewer in the month prior to their admission.

Are these people addicts? Hardly.

The latest federal statistics make it clear that it is not marijuana use per se that is driving these treatment admission rates; it is marijuana prohibition that is primarily driving the drug 'treatment' gravy train. More often than not, ordinary (and typically young -- the average age of admission for marijuana is 24) Americans are being busted for marijuana and are being forced to choose between rehab or jail. It's a dirty little secret that's been a boon for treatment clinics, and a bust for everyone else.