Purpose – Despite the progression of recreational cannabis legalization, the legal system remains the largest source of referral to treatment for cannabis use. The legal system's continued practice of requiring participation in cannabis treatment programs raises questions regarding the extent to which individuals who interact with the legal system are monitored for cannabis use post-legalization. This article presents trends in justice-system referrals to treatment for cannabis use in legal and nonlegal states for 2007–2019. The relationship between legalization and justice system treatment referrals for black, Hispanic/Latino, and white adults and juveniles was explored. Given that minority and youth populations are subject to disproportionate levels of cannabis enforcement, legalization is expected to have a weaker relationship with justice-system referral rates in white juveniles and black and Hispanic/Latino adults and juveniles compared to white adults.
Methods – Using 2007–2019 data from the Treatment Episode Data Set—Admissions (TEDS-A), variables were created for state-level rates of legal system–referred treatment admissions for cannabis use in black, Hispanic/Latino, and white adults and juveniles. Rate trends were compared across populations and staggered difference-in-difference and event analyses were conducted to determine whether legalization is associated with a decline in justice-system referrals to treatment for cannabis use .
Findings – For the study period, the mean rate of legal system–referred admissions in the total population was 2.75 per 10,000 residents. Black juveniles had the highest mean rate (20.16), followed by Hispanic/Latino juveniles (12.35), black adults (9.18), white juveniles (7.58), Hispanic/Latino adults (3.42), and white adults (1.66). Legalization did not have a significant impact on treatment-referral rates in any population of study. Events analyses indicated significant rate increases in black juveniles in legalized states compared to controls at 2 and 6 years after policy change, and in black and Hispanic/Latino adults at 6 years after policy change (all, P < 0.05). While racial/ethnic disparities in referral rates declined in absolute terms, the relative size of these disparities increased in legalized states.
Implications – TEDS-A captures only publicly funded treatment admissions and relies on the quality of individual-state reporting. Individual-level factors that may impact decisions regarding treatment referrals for cannabis use could not be controlled for. Despite limitations, the present findings suggest that for individuals who interact with the criminal legal system, cannabis use may still result in legal monitoring after reform. The upward trend in legal system referrals for black (but not white) adults and juveniles several years after states legalize cannabis warrants further examination and may reflect continued disparate treatment of these populations at multiple points along the legal-system continuum.
Read the full journal article in ScienceDirect.