Recent data shows that drug treatment admissions for marijuana have declined by 80% in Philadelphia. This is likely a result of a 2014 ordinance decriminalizing possession along with new procedures adopted by District Attorney Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney elected in 2017.
Site reports from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS) highlight this significant shift. In 2020 the report’s authors noted that in Philly, “Marijuana admissions have been declining for the past 5 years and have the lowest percentage of the selected substances reported.”
The NDEWS data measured admissions into Philadelphia’s publicly funded treatment programs, and others specifically mandated for monitoring. These resources were often used by those arrested for small amounts of marijuana or to comply with supervision requirements.
Courts, prosecutors, and probation/parole have been the top referral source into drug treatment for marijuana cases for many decades. Sadly, many of these are the very same outpatient resources utilized for all other substances, like alcohol and opiates.
According to NDEWS data, Philadelphia saw 1,086 people referred into treatment for marijuana during 2015, comprising 22.6% of total admissions that year. In 2019 that number fell to 213 admissions for marijuana, comprising just 6.9% of the total.
Notably, drug treatment resources seem to have immediately shifted to more pressing cases in Philadelphia. From 2015 to 2019, the total percent of admissions for heroin shifted from 25.1% to 46% and the total admissions for prescription opiates doubled.
More than a dozen cities in Pennsylvania have adopted ordinances to lower marijuana possession penalties, but Philly’s was the first. It also carries the lowest fines of ant ordinance in the state: $25 for possession of under 30 grams, and $100 for public smoking. Cops can still perform an arrest under state law, but the decriminalization tickets have been issued during most encounters. That means no arrest, no court, no criminal record, no chance of supervision, and it applies to all ages.
Marijuana arrests went down more than 70% in the first year of decriminalization in Philly, from nearly 5,000 to less than 1,000 per year. Then, when Krasner was elected, the DA’s office stopped all municipal-level prosecutions for anyone still being handcuffed for weed under PA state law.
While the police-to-treatment pipeline over small amounts of cannabis has nearly closed in Philly, this lucrative game continues almost everywhere else, even in states where cannabis is fully legal.
The 2020 NDEWS site report for Los Angeles has an interesting view. Methamphetamine comprised 35% of total admissions, while treatments for heroin and prescription opiates are on the decline. The real standout is that thousands were put into drug treatment for marijuana in that California city; 3,633 people or 10.6% of total admissions in 2019 alone.
Those who end up in these treatment resources are not generally self-referring because of a cannabis use disorder. Instead, those admitted are most often being forced to comply with various facets of the court system.
Because of the common referral source, there has always been a disparity in the racial data on marijuana treatment admissions, one that closely tracks the race biases in arrest data trends.
In Los Angeles, 62% of the marijuana treatment admissions recorded during 2019 were Hispanic/Latino residents while 20% were Black and 8.4% were white.
In Philadelphia that same year, 72% of admissions recorded for marijuana were Black and 11% were white.
Some of the many ways cannabis consumers get referred by courts into treatment, other than an outright marijuana arrest:
– Parents and juveniles involved in family cases
– Drivers seeking licenses restored, or who got into an accident
– Those going through immigration
– People who test positive for THC during a drug screen while on probation, parole, supervision, or for employment
Changes in policy and funding often means that people ordered to undergo drug treatment or education are now sent to for-profit providers. To comply, residents often pay out of pocket or with health insurance.
New York City has the most volume of admissions of the NDEWS sites, between 70,000 and 80,000 per year. The site also tracks the most providers. While a handful of truly free treatment services exist in NYC, most have some fee.
Annual referrals into drug treatment for marijuana in NYC hover around 15,000 per year, just under 20% of total admissions recorded. Here again, most of the marijuana cases are coming from the courts or supervision, and demonstrate a racial bias.
The 2019 NDEWS report has the most recent data for New York City showing 57% of marijuana treatment admissions were Black residents, the highest percentage for any substance. Treatments involving white residents for marijuana were recorded at 9% in NYC.
To be blunt: Drug treatment is being used punitively against cannabis consumers, even in places where decriminalization and legalization laws exist. A powerful set of lobbying interests exists around the drug treatment sector, and they may not be willing to close their court referral cash cow.
Thankfully voters can still have the greatest impact, as seen in Philadelphia where Larry Krasner stands out as the nation’s most progressive District Attorney. In fact, cities are increasingly important engines of reform. Atlanta’s Mayor recently stopped pre-employment THC screens for certain city jobs while Chicago and Detroit are seeking to create an equitable cannabis industry.
As further state and even federal marijuana laws are enacted, cities will still need to solve the most persistent problems of prohibition.
Chris Goldstein is a Regional Organizer for NORML based in New Jersey.