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Social workers weigh in on marijuana laws, policies

By Alison Laurio, News contributor

“Marijuana has lit up conversations and controversy across the country. It’s a hotly contested and complicated issue for states to weed through, and no doubt will remain high on legislative agendas for the foreseeable future,” the National Conference of State Legislatures says on one of its website’s “Deep Dive” issues pages.

ThinkstockPhotos-519049366 (1)Voters passed eight marijuana-related ballot initiatives in 2016, and there are now 28 states that have legalized medical marijuana, along with Washington, D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico. Nine states have approved measures legalizing adult use of recreational marijuana, and 20 states have decriminalized the possession of small amounts for personal consumption, generally treating possession as a civil infraction or minor misdemeanor, the NCSL says.

“As states move forward with medical and adult-use recreational marijuana policies, the struggle intensifies among federal, state and local governments for control of marijuana law,” the NCSL states.

And as voters in more and more states legalize its medical and recreational use, many social workers in the field are having to take a wait-and-see approach on how new laws might affect their patients and their practices.

Janlee Wong, executive director of NASW’s California Chapter, said voters there first passed a medical marijuana ballot initiative in 1996.

“Both our 58 counties and our cities can regulate some aspects of medical marijuana issues, and they have,” he said. “It’s still evolving now that a new law passed last November.”

That law legalizes recreational use, setting limits on quantities, like individual users can cultivate up to six plants or have up to 57 joints, 80 packs of gummy bears or 40 brownies, Wong said.

There is a two-year wait time as plans for retail sales are set, and a Jan. 1, 2018, rollout is estimated, he said.
Social workers have some concerns, Wong said.

“We’re always concerned about the misuse of any substance, as well as treatment, rehabilitation, prevention and wellness,” he said. “Our chief concern as social workers and as an organization is, we would prefer that people avoid using it if they’re prone to addiction. Our focus as social workers is going to be trying to figure out ways to help people avoid that.”

As state officials eye potential revenue, Wong said NASW-California is planning to submit revenue grant proposals for research, health education and youth education.

The chapter will wait for NASW national to develop new policies, he said.
Charles D. Syms was on the NASW task force that wrote the Specialty Practice Sections standards in 2004 for alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. It did not address legal marijuana use.
“What’s happened in states like Colorado and Washington is going to be an interesting experiment,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re going to see five years from now, 10 years from now. That will be a telling experience as far as treatment is concerned.”

Syms, a New York State NASW member, is a clinical associate professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo’s School of Social Work who teaches intervention for drugs and alcohol use.
“We’re likely to see social workers include evidence-based treatments for cannabis use in their protocols,” he said. “I think we’ll have to encompass those in the treatment process.”

From the April 2017 NASW News. NASW members can read the full story here.

4 comments

  1. Drugged driving is now more prevalent than driving. Just a thought to ponder..

  2. Katherine Sharp

    In Humboldt County, where this is becoming the next industry, aside from people running stop signs, plowing into cars and running off, forgetting to pick up kids at the bus stops, not able to function through classroom activities, robberies to support habits – Eureka has become the second most dangerous city in California behind Oakland. We can’t attract doctors to the area even though statistics are not accurately reported, resulting in a more attractive city. Corps come and go as they are fooled by the stats. The underbelly of this particular industry is more than the addictive qualities – women exploited as they are the chosen gender for preparation. Angry men who were lured by the industry run around harming others, committing other crime. Illegal grows that pollute the environment/water ways with obscene amounts of rat poison that find their ways into our food sources (and the pot). Bank robberies are up. There are constant shootings. Dabs and house fires are common – so common the fire department states that they’re at risk for being exposed to drugs in order to do their jobs. I didn’t need marijuana for my cancer, but my husband said he did. As a pharmacy tech, he is now able to talk with people about the difference between the medicinal affects and the getting high properties. While everyone says they want the medicinal side, they only describe the getting high part and don’t want the medical alternative. I’m personally all about choice and freedoms, but my freedoms are being effected with this movement toward legalization and I’m hoping for something healthier as time goes on. For now, I see marijuana as yet another barrier in our American culture to having healthy communication, interrelations and success in life.

  3. I submitted the following response in the form of a letter to the editor to NASW News:

    I’m concerned that this article inadequately addresses the implications of marijuana policy reform with respect to the social work mandate to challenge social injustice. The history of marijuana prohibition reflects egregious racism with ongoing enforcement disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities of color and those living in poverty.

    The enduring consequences of a marijuana arrest can include excessive fines, barriers to housing, employment and student loans, challenges to parental rights, and complications with immigration status. These only exacerbate underlying problems for those struggling against an array of systemic social inequities and biopsychosocial challenges. The fundamental well-being of the populations we serve depends on reasonable, compassionate and timely drug policy reform.

    In A Social Work Perspective on Drug Policy Reform (2013), NASW calls for drug policies based on a public health model, an alternative frame to help us critically examine and challenge punitive drug policies that perpetuate social injustice. Our foundational ethics likewise require us to reject the inhumane stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs. The comprehensive decriminalization of personal drug use more broadly and the legalization of marijuana for adult use, in particular, must be seen as pressing priorities for social work advocacy in keeping with our fundamental mission.

    Amanda Bent, MSW, LSW, MPP | Policy Coordinator, Colorado
    Drug Policy Alliance

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