Now that pot is legal, California needs real drug treatment for youths

Nikolas Michaud smokes marijuana at the High Sobriety rehab clinic in Los Angeles in March 2017.
Nikolas Michaud smokes marijuana at the High Sobriety rehab clinic in Los Angeles in March 2017. New York Times

For decades, young people in California have had almost unlimited access to marijuana but virtually no access to affordable drug treatment. When voters legalized recreational pot in 2016, they also provided the resources for California to create an effective system of youth drug prevention and treatment.

That’s why the California Society of Addiction Medicine is sponsoring Senate Bill 275 to ensure that hundreds of millions of dollars in state money delivers quality services.


The science is clear and striking: The earlier a young person starts using drugs or alcohol, the more devastating the impact. Substance abuse affects brain development, impedes school work and makes interaction with the justice system more likely -- any of which can derail a young person’s life.

In more than four decades treating addicted youths, I’ve never had one complain that they couldn’t get their hands on marijuana, but I’ve heard countless families say they haven’t been able to find good treatment for their teens. Effective, community-based treatment must be made available to all youth, not just those whose families can afford costly private care, or those who are in juvenile detention.

Timmen Cermak.jpg
Timmen Cermak

That’s why as a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission that helped shape Proposition 64 and now the state Cannabis Advisory Committee that is helping to implement it, I have worked alongside other treatment experts to advance a vision for prevention and treatment that works.

This must start early in our schools by training teachers and counselors to identify signs of drug use and then refer students to professional services. We must also dramatically increase community-based services, separate from adult treatment to protect vulnerable minors. Family dynamics, school performance, and recent traumas affecting youth drug use and treatment must be addressed simultaneous to addiction interventions.

Authored by Senator Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, SB 275 requires the state to convene experts to develop rigorous quality standards for publicly-funded youth treatment. It also ensures these services are coordinated with schools and with social services programs serving foster and homeless adolescents. And it prevents precious resources from being diverted into programs that lack evidence or effectiveness.

Without SB 275, California risks squandering new federal funds and Prop. 64 revenues, as well as the opportunities for drug-free living our youth deserve.

Timmen Cermak, a Marin County psychiatrist who specializes in addiction treatment, is a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy and the state Cannabis Advisory Committee. He can be contacted at and the views are his own.