Court-Mandated Cannabis Treatment Plummets After Legalization

Court-Mandated Cannabis Treatment Plummets After Legalization

Newly released data published in last month’s issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine concluded that marijuana treatments for young people have declined following legalization.

The data, presented by researchers at Temple University, “were extracted from the Treatment Episode Dataset—Admissions and used to calculate trends in the number and proportion of criminal justice referrals” for cannabis use disorder treatment. They sought to investigate “whether the proportion of referrals to cannabis use disorder (CUD) treatment from the criminal justice system declined among adolescents (aged 12–17 years) and young adults (aged 18–24 years) following state recreational (adult use) cannabis legalization in the United States between 2008 and 2019.” And they said that difference-in-differences analysis [used to measure a cause and effect of a certain policy] “was used to estimate the effect of recreational legalization on the state-level proportion of criminal justice referrals as a share of all admissions.”

The researchers said that, nationwide, “the number and proportion of adolescent and young adult criminal justice referrals to [cannabis use disorder] treatment declined over the study period.”

“The proportion of young adult criminal justice referrals declined significantly more rapidly after recreational legalization as compared with before (β = −0.045; 95% confidence interval, −0.079 to −0.010; P = 0.01),” the researchers wrote. “Among adolescents, the trajectory of decline in the proportion of criminal justice referrals did not change significantly following recreational legalization (β = −0.033; 95% confidence interval, −0.073 to 0.008; P = 0.11).”

The researchers concluded that their results “indicate that the proportion of referrals to CUD [cannabis use disorder] treatment from the criminal justice system fell following recreational legalization in the United States among young adults, likely due to post-legalization declines in cannabis-related arrests,” as quoted by NORML’s write-up of the data.

“The decline in the proportion of young adult criminal justice referrals to [cannabis use disorder] treatment following recreational legalization is likely due to falling cannabis-related arrests. Although cannabis criminalization may result in court-mandated CUD treatment for some young adults without CUD, the decline in CUD treatment admissions during a period of increasing CUD risk factors associated with recreational legalization represents a key health concern. Promoting screening and other CUD treatment referral sources, such as through primary care, may be warranted,” they concluded.

The findings represent a welcome development for legalization advocates, who have long contended that the end of prohibition would free up resources in the criminal justice system.

NORML’s Deputy Director Paul Armentano said that most people “arrested for violating marijuana possession laws do not require mandatory drug treatment, and historically, these referrals were provided primarily to divert people away from the criminal justice system.”

“In addition to ending tens of thousands of needless low-level marijuana arrests, cannabis legalization is also freeing up space in drug treatment centers for those people who truly need it,” Armentano said in a statement on the findings.

Marijuana legalization is still in its infancy in the United States, and researchers are continuing to learn more about the social and political outcomes of the policy reform. 

A long-term study released earlier this year found that the legalization of marijuana is not associated with drug abuse.

The study looked at various sets of twins (more than 4,000 individuals total) to examine the effect of living in states that permit recreational cannabis.

Although it was not linked to substance abuse disorder, the researchers did find that it often resulted in increased pot use.

“In the co-twin control design accounting for earlier cannabis frequency and alcohol use disorder (AUD) symptoms respectively, the twin living in a recreational state used cannabis on average more often, and had fewer AUD symptoms than their co-twin living in an non-recreational state. Cannabis legalization was associated with no other adverse outcome in the co-twin design, including cannabis use disorder. No risk factor significantly interacted with legalization status to predict any outcome,” they wrote.

“Recreational legalization was associated with increased cannabis use and decreased AUD symptoms but was not associated with other maladaptations,” wrote researchers. “These effects were maintained within twin pairs discordant for residence. Moreover, vulnerabilities to cannabis use were not exacerbated by the legal cannabis environment. Future research may investigate causal links between cannabis consumption and outcomes,” the researchers added.

Another study released last year found that marijuana legalization has led to a reduction in filled prescriptions through that state’s Medicaid program.

“These results have important implications,” said Shayam Raman, one of the researchers involved in the study. “The reductions in drug utilization that we find could lead to significant cost savings for state Medicaid programs. The results also indicate an opportunity to reduce the harm that can come with the dangerous side effects associated with some prescription drugs.”

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