In recent weeks, we have seen a shift in how drug war proponents are talking about marijuana. No longer able to convince the public that people who use marijuana should go to jail, they are singing a new tune; they should all go to treatment. This is a shift we have seen before. When marijuana first came on the scene in the U.S. in the early 1900s, reports of marijuana induced violence among Mexicans fueled the nation's fear about the little known plant. When the general population started experimenting with the herb in the 1920s, it became clear that the claims of violence were fabricated. Losing the ability to instill fear in the public around marijuana use, the message was modified. The new message tied marijuana use to insanity and mental illness, which were highly stigmatized conditions, and continue to be. Being labeled as mentally ill frightened the white, middle class, marijuana consumers, and this fear led to the support of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937.
Fast forward to 2012. Public support for marijuana legalization is at an all-time high and the government acknowledges that a change is being considered. No longer able to convince Americans that marijuana consumers are dangerous criminals who deserve to be locked up, history is repeating itself. We are seeing a shift in the message, from marijuana consumers as criminals to marijuana consumers as sick people who belong in treatment. It's a propaganda shell game and we can't fall for it again.
A recent article in the New York Times quoted Dr. Nora Volkow, the head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse as saying that 1 out of 6 adolescents who try marijuana will become addicted. That is akin to saying, if you keep making that face, it will freeze that way. In fact, a mere 2.8% of 12-17 year olds who used marijuana in 2010 entered treatment for it, and many of those cases could be the result of an agreement between the courts and the defendant in lieu of involvement with the juvenile justice system. When looking at the broader landscape of marijuana use, we see that 1.1% of marijuana users 12 and older in 2010 went to treatment for the substance. We also saw twice as many arrested for simple marijuana possession that year than enter treatment for marijuana dependence (750,000 vs. 335,833). The claim that marijuana causes mental illness, or that all marijuana consumers are addicted and in need of treatment undermines the efforts by mental health and addictions professionals to address the serious illnesses and addictions that pose real threats to persons and society.
Dr. David Nathan, a clinical associate professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and recently elected as a distinguished fellow in the American Psychiatric Association, wrote in a piece on CNN.com, "Throughout my career as a clinical psychiatrist, I have seen lives ruined by drugs like cocaine, painkillers and alcohol. I have also borne witness to the devastation brought upon cannabis users -- almost never by abuse of the drug, but by a justice system that chooses a sledgehammer to kill a weed."
Recently, former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy announced the formation of a new group, SAM, which stands for A Smarter Approach to Marijuana. Kennedy and his group recognize that the argument of jail for marijuana is no longer salient with today's population, so they have repackaged the message for a new generation: marijuana use is a mental illness and requires treatment, every time. This sentiment is echoed in his group's project list, which includes, "Increased funding for mental health courts and treatment of drug dependency, so those caught using marijuana might avoid incarceration, get help and potentially have their criminal records cleared."
On its face, this statement is not so outrageous, but upon closer look it is frightening for two reasons. First, although increased funding for mental health services and substance abuse treatment can be beneficial, according to a 2008 report, 90% of those who currently need substance abuse treatment do not receive it, this compares to 24% of diabetes patients who do not receive treatment. It is estimated that 23 million people need addiction care, and only 2.3 million receive it. Forcing marijuana consumers into an already overloaded system will reduce the likelihood of care for those with serious, life threatening addictions. Furthermore, since approximately 37% of treatment referrals come from the criminal justice system, initiating a pipeline from the courtroom to treatment will result in a tidal wave of first time, young marijuana offenders entering substance abuse treatment to trade the label of criminal for addict. Secondly, Kennedy's group refers to treatment for those "caught" with marijuana. This implies, that, under his plan, the U.S. will continue to seek out marijuana users, presumably via law enforcement. Or, perhaps Kennedy et al will institute a special marijuana task force charged with roaming the country in search of marijuana addicts. Whatever the case, SAM's plan involves the active identification of marijuana consumers, followed by forced involvement in the system. Don't be fooled, this is not a "new way" for marijuana, but rather a regressive old approach dressed in new clothes.