Voluntary Drug Treatment For Marijuana On The Rise

By Keri Blakinger 06/14/17

Experts believe that marijuana addiction treatment will continue to rise as legalization efforts gain ground.

Woman smoking a marijuana joint.

Even as pot-friendly drug policies land fewer smokers in court-mandated treatment programs, some data shows that the number of ganja-lovers voluntarily heading to rehab is on the rise. 

These days, the vast majority of tokers seeking treatment are entering programs voluntarily, the Washington Post reported. But as states have begun decriminalizing cannabis, court-referred patients have plummeted 40% since 2011. 

At the same time, those voluntarily seeking treatment—a category that includes everything from seeing a doctor to visiting a school nurse to going to self-help groups—are comprising a larger percentage of the total instances of pot-related drug treatment. Back in 2011, somewhere around 690,000 people voluntarily sought treatment for marijuana, while about 182,000 did so to comply with a court order. 

Since then, the court-mandated numbers have steadily decreased, while voluntary admissions have fluctuated with a general increase over time. In 2015, more than 800,000 people voluntarily sought treatment for pot use, while around 109,000 were court-mandated to do so. 

In his analysis for the Post, Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys predicted that marijuana addiction treatment will continue to rise as legalization efforts continue gaining ground across the country. 

To support that theory, Humphreys pointed to data showing that about 9% of pot users report becoming addicted to the sticky-icky. And as the rate of pot use blooms with legalization efforts, that percent could include a growing number of people. 

The data analysis comes even as harm reduction groups are pushing for the use of cannabis as a possible vehicle for treating other types of drug addiction. 

“It’s a harm-reduction theory,” Joe Schrank of High Sobriety told CNN last month. “With cannabis, there is no known lethal dose; it can be helpful for certain conditions.”

Of course, that’s a controversial intervention, as many treatment centers still favor old-school abstinence-based approaches. 

"I'm all about adding interventions and therapeutic techniques that have proven to be significantly profound in the changes to somebody's life and treatment. Unfortunately, I don't know that there's evidence to substantiate that marijuana's had that effect," said Todd Stumbo, CEO of Blue Ridge Mountain Recovery Center in Georgia.

But whether or not marijuana is a good form of treatment—despite its apparent potential for abuse—could be an entirely academic discussion if Attorney General Jeff Sessions has his way. The nation’s top attorney is a seasoned anti-cannabis crusader and in early May penned a letter asking certain members of Congress to remove federal protections for medical marijuana patients.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.