The number of American teenagers in drug treatment increased dramatically during the 1990s, but that jump was fueled almost entirely by teen marijuana users arrested and ordered into treatment by the courts. According to a study released earlier this fall by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the number of youth aged 12 to 17 placed in drug treatment programs rose from 95,000 in 1993 to 138,000 in 1998, an increase of 46% in five years. But the study, "Coerced Treatment Among Youths: 1993-1998," reported that "the increase was largely driven by marijuana-involved admissions referred through the criminal justice system."
"What an incredible waste," said retired American University law professor Arnold Trebach, founder of the Drug Policy Foundation and currently head of the Trebach Institute (http://www.trebach.org). "The idea that every teenage pot-smoker needs treatment is absurd," he told DRCNet. "I'm opposed to kids smoking pot," he added. "That could lead to tobacco use, which could be dangerous, but the notion that they need treatment is a reflection of how messed up our drug policy is at its core."
The study, which relied on data from SAMHSA's Drug and Alcohol Services Information System's Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS), a nationwide compilation of treatment episodes in centers receiving federal funding, found that teen drug treatment referrals from other sources remained stable over the five-year period. Teens referred to drug treatment by schools have declined slightly to about 15,000 after peaking at about 20,000 in 1995. Self-referrals, where either the teen or a friend or family member arranged the intervention, hovered at about 20,000 in 1998, down slightly from the mid-1990s. All other referrals, which include health care providers and community, government or religious social service providers, increased from 20,000 to 30,000 between 1993 and 1995, but have remained at that level since then.
Criminal justice system referrals, either for marijuana alone or for marijuana and alcohol, have gone through the roof, however, increasing from about 37,000 in 1993 to more than 60,000 in 1998. According to the study, by 1998 almost half (49%) of all teen drug treatment admissions came through the courts, and people admitted for marijuana alone or marijuana and alcohol combined constituted three-quarters of all admissions. (Over the five-year period, alcohol alone and marijuana alone switched positions. In 1993, alcohol alone was named in 24.4% of admissions and marijuana alone in 11.9%. By 1998, alcohol alone had dropped to 9.3%, while marijuana alone had increased to 24.9%. Marijuana and alcohol combined grew slightly from 45.4% in 1993 to 51.2% in 1998.)
During the five-year period, in the midst of rapidly rising marijuana arrests during the Clinton administration, the number of teens forced into drug treatment by the criminal justice system increased 73%.
Despite the increases in overall marijuana arrests and in teens sent to drug treatment by courts, "there is very little evidence of a teen pot problem," said Trebach. "I just checked the data on child deaths from drug abuse from 1996-1999," he explained. "There are roughly a hundred per year, for all drugs. Kids are fairly sensible about this," said Trebach. "There is no great need for treatment [for teenagers], but there is a real need for getting honest information to the kids. Some kids do get in trouble with drugs, and they could use the help, but it has to be intelligent help, not the harsh regimen they often find in drug treatment today."
Visit http://www.samhsa.gov/OAS/coercedTX.pdf to read the study in full.