Court-Ordered Drug Rehab Does Not Work


By "Radical" Russ Belville

I have always maintained that drug courts, while preferable to sending people to prison, are really just a different form of incarceration for cannabis consumers whose only problem with pot was getting caught.  A majority of tokers (57%) who go to rehab for cannabis use were forced to go there by a drug court or other criminal justice situations that gave them the “choice” of rehab or jail.

 Over a third (37%) in rehab for cannabis hadn’t even used cannabis for the prior month and another 16% only used cannabis 1-3 times in the prior month.  Because, you know, it’s so grippingly addictive.

Now the Drug Policy Alliance has released a report that shows not only are these forced rehabs for tokers a gilded cage, they are ineffective and worse!

Washington, D.C. – At two briefings on Capitol Hill today, the Drug Policy Alliance released a groundbreaking new report, Drug Courts are Not the Answer: Toward a Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use (, which finds that drug courts have not demonstrated cost savings, reduced incarceration, or improved public safety; leave many people worse off for trying; and have actually made the criminal justice system more punitive toward addiction – not less.

The Justice Policy Institute today also released its own independent report on drug courts, Addicted to Courts: How a Growing Dependence on Drug Courts Impacts People and Communities (, which finds that providing people with alternatives like community-based treatment are more cost-effective and provide greater public safety benefits than treatment that comes with the collateral consequences associated with involvement in the criminal justice system. For more information on this JPI report, contact Jason Fenster at 202.558.7974 x 306 or

You should check out the whole report, it is chock full of great information.  Here are the highlights:

Key Findings of DPA’s Drug Courts Are Not the Answer:

Drug Courts Have Not Demonstrated Cost Savings, Reduced Incarceration, or Improved Public Safety

  • Unscientific and poorly designed research has failed to take into account that: drug courts often “cherry pick” people expected to do well; many people end up in a drug court because they are offered the option of jail or treatment for a petty drug law violation, including marijuana; and, as a result, drug courts do not typically divert people from lengthy prison terms. Given drug courts’ focus on low-level offenses, even positive results for individual participants translate into little public safety benefit to the community. Treatment in the community, whether voluntary or probation-supervised, often produces better results.

Yeah, no wonder the Drug Czar’s office can proclaim “Research verifies that no other justice intervention can rival the dramatic results of those produced by drug courts” – you’re successfully rehabilitating a whole bunch of pot smokers who need no rehabilitation!  What do you know, when we force pot smokers to rehab, randomly test their pee, and keep them on probation, surprisingly few of them re-offend!  Because the rehab cured that terrible addiction to cannabis that they never had in the first place!

Drug Courts Leave Many People Worse Off for Trying

  • The widespread use of incarceration – for failing a drug test, missing an appointment or being a “knucklehead” – means that some participants end up serving more time behind bars than if they had not entered drug court. And some participants deemed “failures” may actually face longer sentences than those who did not enter drug court in the first place (often because they lost the opportunity to plead to a lesser charge). Even those not in drug court may be negatively affected by them, since drug courts have been associated with increased arrests and incarceration in some cases because law enforcement and others believe people will “get help” if they are arrested but drug courts’ limited capacity and strict eligibility requirements mean that many of those additionally arrested end up conventionally sentenced.

In my job I have listened to the stories of parents who thought they would “get help” for their drug-using adult child by narcing them out to police.  Tough love, they thought, but not too tough because they thought the drug court would just force him to go to treatment in order to avoid jail.

Too bad their child also kept a legally-owned shotgun at the house and a triple-beam scale and he didn’t qualify for the drug court.

Drug Courts Are More Punitive Toward Addiction – Not Less

  • Some people with serious drug problems respond to treatment in the drug court context; not the majority. The participants who stand the best chance of succeeding in drug courts are those without a drug problem, while those struggling with compulsive drug use are more likely to end up incarcerated.

Because here’s the thing about people with drug problems: they are physiologically addicted to a drug.  It is a rewiring of the brain.  When presented with options like “stop doing that” or “go to jail”, you cannot make the sensible choice.  That’s what addiction is.  Relapses are virtually guaranteed, so the threat of prison time for failing to maintain sobriety works against maintaining sobriety in the first place.  People struggling with addiction sometimes make their greatest gains after a relapse.

And here’s the thing about people who smoke pot.  Nearly none of us have any sort of problems resultant from our use.  NIDA claims 9% of users are “clinically dependent”.  Aside from its criminal prohibition, cannabis is a positive in our lives.  It relaxes us.  It heals some of us.  It builds social bonds.  Most of all, it is not hurting you.


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