Medical marijuana is legal in 14 states, and advocates would like to expand that or legalize pot altogether. But the judges, lawyers and therapists who work in drug courts say the criminal justice system has helped addicts turn their lives around.
At the recent meeting of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals in Boston, attendees discussed how new attitudes toward Marijuana affect what they do.
The fact that in a state the size of California you can get a doctor's recommendation for marijuana for anything from cancer to a bad mood has changed the attitude toward pot nationwide, says Rose Ewing, a program director of drug courts in Tulsa, Okla.
Ewing says it has made it harder to help some of her clients.
"They're like, 'If we lived in another state we'd be able to use this medically for different conditions because they don't consider it a bad drug or a hard-core drug,' " she says. "They really feel like it's in a different class of drugs."
Harder To Persuade Users
Drug courts like Ewing's work on a carrot-and-stick approach. Defendants get therapy and regular drug testing, and a judge monitors their progress. The success rate is high, but the defendants who fail to clean up their acts can go to jail. Yet even with so much at stake, it can be hard to convince marijuana users that they have a problem if few people around them see it that way, says Andrew Cummings, director of the drug court in Georgia's DeKalb County.
"It becomes an issue similar to alcohol, where the community's attitude toward marijuana becomes increasingly permissive, and therefore it becomes more difficult for the participants to see it as a problem, and to see it as a treatable problem," Cummings says.
These days it's difficult for a lot of people to see marijuana as a problem, even if they have never touched the stuff, says Judge John Creuzot of Dallas, who has presided over drug courts and regular felony courts.
"When we get into guilt, innocence and punishment, you see a lot of pushback, especially on marijuana, from the citizens [juries]," he says. "They don't think it should be a felony offense and ... so it's very difficult to get them to commit to sending someone to the penitentiary for possession of marijuana."
In Texas, juries can assess punishment in felony cases.
Cruezot says he thinks the people who don't seem to care much about marijuana might become positively enthusiastic if California voters approve a measure on the November ballot to legalize and tax marijuana.
"When a state like California, a big state, moves in that direction — let's say that becomes the law. If taxes can be raised and collected, if crime doesn't rise or doesn't change any, if jails are less populated, everybody else is going to look at it and see," he says.
But Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, says don't even think about it.
"Legalization is a nonstarter," says Kerlikowske, who addressed the drug courts meeting.
He says he doesn't buy any of the arguments in favor of legalizing pot: that it will reduce violence, police will be free to fight other crimes and that tax dollars will be raised.
"None of that really holds up under any scrutiny," he says.
In the case of medical marijuana, the Obama administration has told federal prosecutors not to go after dispensaries that are in compliance with local and state laws. But Kerlikowske says that's just a matter of allocating scarce resources.
Medical marijuana, he says, is not only still illegal but also may not really be medical.
"Medical marijuana is still one of those questions that science should decide and not popular vote," he says.
But voters don't seem inclined to wait for science's stamp of approval on something that seems within their grasp.
Cummings, the director of the drug court in Georgia, says he worries about what might happen if marijuana use becomes more acceptable.
"People often think about marijuana, and understandably so, as one might think about having a drink at the end of the day and relaxing, but it doesn't stop there for a lot of people," he says. "And as the potency increases, the likelihood of dependency increases."
Cummings wonders how those people would be able to find help if abusing marijuana no longer forced them to go to court.