CSU initiates programs to study, help understand drug use nationwide


Addictions, also known as substance use disorders, don’t come only in the guise of alcohol or illegal drug misuse. About one in 10 regular marijuana users will develop Cannabis Use Disorder, which includes physiological dependence symptoms. With seven states and the District of Columbia having now legalized recreational marijuana – and with more than half a million people using the substance in Colorado alone – there are a lot of individuals who might need help. And the science of how best to help them has been lagging.

These developments speak to the need for a better understanding of contemporary substance use – and a new supply of highly trained addiction counselors. And Colorado State University is tackling these challenges through field-leading research, unique collaborations, and new academic programs.

Training for excellence in addiction help

The state of Colorado has put out a call for additional certified addiction counselors, especially in the past few years since cannabis was made available for recreational use by adults. “With marijuana, there’s a lot of renewed interest in addiction counselors,” said Mark Prince, assistant professor of psychology and associate director of addiction counseling in the College of Natural SciencesDepartment of Psychology. In addition to the increasing number of patients needing treatment – from abuse of marijuana, opiates, and other substances – many current certified addiction counselors are reaching retirement age and leaving the workforce, said Associate Professor and Director of Addiction Counseling Bradley Conner.

So this fall, the psychology department is launching a new Master’s in Addiction Counseling program, which will start to fill the need for trained addiction counselors in Colorado – and nationwide.

In the two-year program, students will dive into coursework for their first year – and then spend the full second year in a supervised internship, gaining the real-world experiences essential for the field. Individuals from health sciences and health services backgrounds are encouraged to apply, and Conner expects to see many students who continue working while they take classes, possibly even interning with their current employer.

CSU began an undergraduate concentration in addiction counseling in 2014. Students completing this path as part of their psychology bachelor’s are qualified to test for the first level of certification in the state. As Certified Addiction Counselors I, they are allowed to participate in patient intakes and in running groups, which gives them exposure to the field. But, says Conner, the new master’s program will enable students to attain the highest level of addiction counseling certification: Licensed Addiction Counselor. Graduates will be able to select where they want to work, locally or elsewhere in the U.S. – as well as in what environment: residential facilities, outpatient treatment, on multidisciplinary teams in hospitals, or to open their own private practices

The CSU program provides coursework above and beyond what is required by the state ­– which is the goal, Conner said. “We are trying to increase the quality of care we’re offering by getting master’s-level people into the treatment facilities.”

Collaboration for better science

In addition to preparing more counselors to assist those who need it, CSU is also leading the charge in finding new ways to discover some of the most basic facts about substance use, such as: how much do people really use?

Studying substances that are controlled can be challenging. Although cannabis is now legal in Colorado, it is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance and is illegal at the federal level. This complicates the research, disallowing researchers without Schedule 1 licenses to administer it to volunteers – or even handle it. So most research on drugs like cannabis, even in states where it is legal, have relied on self-report data, which is notoriously unreliable – especially when dosage and potency can vary widely.

But Conner, Prince, and their colleagues at CSU have launched a unique collaboration with the Denver co-working and event space Cultivated Synergy. The space is home to cannabis industry events as well as private events that permit the legal use of marijuana. Their team assists CSU researchers in recruiting participants and coordinating studies. With this collaboration, Conner and Prince are able to have study participants weigh and evaluate their own products and responses in real time.

For the current study, Conner and Prince are investigating how much of the active compounds in marijuana (cannibinoids including THC and CBD) participants are actually consuming, how often they are consuming it, and what sort of effects they might be having. The hope is to be able to determine the accuracy of self-reported consumption; do people underestimate? Overestimate? And if so, by how much? “We think there’s a lot of opportunity to advance the field and do some of the basic studies that haven’t been done,” Prince said.

They can then use that information, Conner said, to better understand who is going to use, who will be more likely to have problems with use, who will benefit – and how to create better prevention and treatment options.

Current counseling approaches, Prince said, have been tailored to alcohol, amphetamine, and opiate addictions. With cannabis, “the types of problems people have are different,” Prince said. “We need new methods.” And the new CSU work will help ensure these new methods are sound – and applied effectively.

The deadline to apply for the new Master’s in Addiction Counseling for the fall 2017 term is June 24.