Program Lowers Recidivism in Marijuana Users on Parole

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Back in 2006, a new program for parolees was instituted in five states. Sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse under their Criminal Justice Drug Abuse Treatment Studies program, the idea was to see if parolees would respond to positive reinforcement to keep them from re-offending. Those enrolled in the study were originally incarcerated for a drug offense or were admitted users.

Now, five years later, the results are in. Return-to-jail was lowered with one drug – marijuana. Offenders on parole who had a history of abusing heroin, prescription drugs or cocaine did not respond to the rewards offered. This makes it a win when used in marijuana cases, but less than encouraging in other populations.

Reinforcing positive behaviors was the essential element of the program. Parolees who successfully avoided their drug of choice were issued points through a computer program. Along with this, there was a series of color-coded life goals thought to help reduce recidivism.
• Red – violation that puts them back in jail.
• Orange – drug or alcohol abstinence
• Yellow – recovery based items (like 12 step attendance)
• Green – goals set by parolees, usually employment or family related

The outcome is covered in more detail here. Interestingly, while the psychology was thought to be sound, the reason the program failed for most addictive drugs is the relationship between stimulus and reward. Simply put, drugs tempt and “reward” on a very short time scale (minutes instead of hours), while the computer generated points only came on a daily basis and even then, held off actual awards until enough points were accumulated.

It’s the very small separation between the reward and the activity that gives many addictions their power. Marijuana users, who did benefit and showed lower returns to prison, are better able to delay gratification –or-- marijuana is simply a less addictive substance.

Even without stunning results, the study yielded good information. Sometimes finding out what doesn’t work, and why, enables treatment professionals to modify a program and make it more effective.

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