Data released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that admissions to drug treatment centers for marijuana use in Philadelphia have dropped 80% over five years. The decline in drug treatment center admissions is documented in the 2020 site report for Philadelphia from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) National Drug Early Warning System (NDEWS).
“Marijuana admissions have been declining for the past five years and have the lowest percentage of the selected substances reported,” the authors wrote in the report.
The NDEWS describes and compares drug use patterns and trends in selected communities across the United States. Coordinators of the program work closely with epidemiologists in 12 communities to monitor emerging drugs and drug trends by utilizing indicators such as overdose deaths, treatment admissions, hospital cases, poison center exposure calls, and law enforcement seizures.
In Philadelphia, the NDEWS data measured admissions into the city’s publicly funded drug treatment programs and others mandated for monitoring. In 2015, 1,086 people were referred to drug treatment for marijuana, making up 22.6% of the total admissions in the city during that year. In 2019, the data identified only 213 people referred to drug treatment for marijuana, which was only 6.9% of the total.
During the same period, Philadelphia saw an increase in the percentage of drug treatment referrals for more dangerous and highly addictive drugs. In 2015, 25.1% of drug treatment referrals were for heroin. By 2019, the figure had risen to 46%, and the percentage of admissions for prescription opiates had doubled.
Decline Spurred By Drug Policy Reforms
Chris Goldstein, a regional organizer for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), wrote in an op-ed from the group that the decline in drug treatment admissions for marijuana in Philadelphia could likely be attributed in large part to two factors. In 2014, the city passed an ordinance decriminalizing possession of marijuana, leading to a 70% decline in arrests the first year. And in 2017, voters elected civil rights attorney Larry Krasner as district attorney, leading to new procedures for those arrested for marijuana offenses.
For decades, those arrested or convicted of marijuana offenses had been referred to drug treatment by the courts, prosecutors, and the probation and parole system. These referrals, often for offenses involving only possession of small amounts of marijuana, often relied on resources that were also used to treat users of far more dangerous drugs such as alcohol and opiates.
Drug treatment referrals for marijuana also reflect the racial bias prevalent in the enforcement of the nation’s drug laws. In 2019, 72% of drug treatment referrals for marijuana in Philadelphia were for Black people while only 11% of those referred were white.
“To be blunt: Drug treatment is being used punitively against cannabis consumers, even in places where decriminalization and legalization laws exist,” wrote Goldstein. “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.”
“As further state and even federal marijuana laws are enacted, cities will still need to solve the most persistent problems of prohibition,” Goldstein concluded.