What Marijuana Legalization Means for Substance Abuse Treatment

Marijuana has been decriminalized in a number of cities and has been legalized in four states: Washington, Colorado, Alaska, and Oregon. Although these individual states have decriminalized or legalized marijuana outright, the Federal government still considers marijuana an illegal and controlled substance, regardless of the state laws.

This has caused confusion in a number of substance abuse organizations and facilities across the nation. Some substance abuse treatment centers are wondering whether or not they will need to revise their current stance on marijuana if the drug has been legalized in the state in which they operate.

Although there are already treatment plans for addictive, legal drugs (such as prescription opiate painkillers), marijuana lacks the physical addictiveness of these other drugs, yet is still categorized as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act and the DEA’s scheduling rubric. This means that the Federal government does not consider marijuana to have any medical benefit and has a high potential for abuse, and puts it in the same classification as drugs like LSD and MDMA.

The insane thing is that cocaine, methamphetamine, and prescription opiate painkillers like hydrocodone are classified as Schedule II drugs – considered to have less abuse potential than Schedule I. The science and the government’s policies are clearly opposed.

Despite the lack of evidence for physical addiction, some people are psychologically dependent on marijuana, and long-time users can experience anxiety, headaches, loss of appetite, and general irritableness when deprived of their drug of choice. Some daily smokers have to go into treatment in order to learn how to live without marijuana, and for some it can be a life-long battle.

This is why instead of marijuana “addiction,” it’s typically referred to in substance abuse facilities as “dependence.” You can be dependent on a substance but not necessarily addicted to it. You don’t normally hear about heavy cannabis users knocking over convenience stores to get their next fix like crack and heroin addicts.

Since marijuana has been legalized in the states previously mentioned (and the nation’s capital), these cities and states will have to determine whether or not marijuana “dependence” is something worth spending precious public resources to fight. If a daily user (someone who smokes all day, every day for instance) doesn’t see a problem with his cannabis use and continues to ingest it anyway, there is no point in trying to rehabilitate someone who doesn’t want to be rehabilitated, especially for something completely legal. This is akin to an alcoholic who poses no threat to anyone but himself (not including getting behind the wheel, which is a different story altogether), but continues to drink and damage his health. The only argument that could be made in that case is one of health care expenditures doled out by the taxpayer.

This begs the real question: how many people would voluntarily go into a marijuana dependence treatment program if not forced? Most of the people in these programs are there by court order. It’s estimated that about 9% of all marijuana users will eventually become addicted, due to genetic and environmental factors, and most marijuana addictions result from the user trying to self-medicate a mental illness: depression/anxiety, bipolar, PTSD, BPD, etc.

The fact is that while marijuana may not be physically addictive in the usual sense, people still become addicted to it and need help getting off it, just like there are treatment programs for people addicted to chocolate and cigarettes. And while it may be legalized in a number of states now, it is still illegal and considered an illicit substance by most state governments and the Federal government.

In states where the status quo is maintained, things will continue as normal. The only thing that may differ with states that have legalized marijuana is that people will no longer be forced to attend court-ordered classes or treatment. Public resources will also probably be cut if the problem seems to lack in severity.

Written by
Joshua Creighton