Posted April 22, 2013 by evergreen-culture in Marijuana Myths

Myth: Marijuana is “The Gateway Drug”


his is probably the most notorious and effective modern-day myth that has been distributed to the public through anti-drug activities out of the government and government-funded organizations. The myth essentially goes like this: “While marijuana might not be that much of a danger or social concern, the real problem is that most people (especially teenagers and young adults) who try it then move onto other more problematic drugs such as cocaine and heroin.” Okay, legitimately possible, a little scary, and thus a very effective tool in the “war on drugs” and the defense of current federal views regarding marijuana. The problem is that reality seems to demonstrate the exact opposite of this hypothesis in both the US and other countries – some which have legalized marijuana altogether. Here is a response to the gateway hypothesis that was written in 1995.

As you can see in the article linked above, statistics are great and all, but they are just that, numbers that someone derived using a certain amount of logic and math equations at their disposal. The government’s stance on the gateway-drug idea rested on stats that were calculated in a manner that in no way represented what they were actually trying to analyze. Just because a very small number of cocaine users report never having consumed marijuana, does not then support the conclusion that most users of cocaine got there through the influence of marijuana, making choices they wouldn’t have normally made if they hadn’t consumed cannabis. It is especially telling when you consider the statement made about the percentage of marijuana consumers who never move on to hard drugs such as cocaine – 83% (in 1995) – a piece of evidence observed during the study but not reported because it shattered their preconceived conclusions.  All you can actually ascertain from the results they gathered is that most marijuana smokers don’t move onto hard drugs; and those that are using hard drugs are also highly likely to have consumed marijuana in the past. And alcohol. Probably even tobacco. In other words, with 83% of marijuana smokers never moving on to hard drugs, marijuana seems to be a terminus in most cases, not a gateway. In fact, in surveys performed in 2002 and 2003, similar statistics regarding alcohol and illicit drug use were conducted. The results showed that over 88% of the people 21 and over surveyed considered themselves “lifetime drinkers” – meaning they regularly consume alcohol, typically daily. Of these lifetime drinkers, over 52% of them had used illicit drugs. The point is, these statistics are far more damning, but still don’t point to alcohol being a gateway drug, so why should vastly more tenuous connections lead to this conclusion regarding marijuana.

Here is a great quote from Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of NORML. The statistics are from 2008:

Despite 70+ years of criminal prohibition, marijuana still remains widely popular among Americans, with over 102 million Americans (41 percent of the U.S. population) having used it during their lifetimes, 26 million (10 percent) having used it in the past year, and over 15 million (6 percent) admitting that they use it regularly. (By contrast, fewer than 15 percent of adults have ever tried cocaine, the second most ‘popular’ illicit drug, and fewer than 2 percent have ever tried heroin — so much for that supposed ‘gateway effect.’) Predictably, all of the 2008 marijuana use figures are higherthan those that were reported for the previous year… – Paul Armentano (2008)

So, here is our take. The problem is not marijuana. It has been shown through rigorous study and research that this plant is only safer and more effective than previously thought. The problem is marijuana’s illegality. Take a look at the Netherlands. In the 1970s, Holland legalized marijuana under a system that allowed for the operation of legal “coffee shops” that operate under government regulation and taxation. These shops are allowed to sell cannabis and cannabis products for consumption on their premises to people of legal age, 18 and over in their case. Here was the thinking behind this bold move: If you take marijuana – a substance that is natural and safer than tobacco and alcohol – and remove it from the illegal black market, you can impact the rate at which marijuana consumers at risk for such behavior actually move on to harder substances since they will no longer need to go to that element when acquiring marijuana. When people go to an illegal source for marijuana they may be exposed to opportunities that they normally may not have encountered. For instance these black market dealers may also be selling drugs such as meth, cocaine, heroin and the like. It is not that marijuana made them want to try other drugs, but rather other drugs were made available to them because marijuana is under prohibition.

Understand, we are not saying that is not possible for some people to try marijuana and have it lead to more drug experimentation – we would simply suggest that you could make a much stronger case that alcohol was likely the first illegal substance that those under 21 dabbled in. By regulating marijuana coffee shops and prohibiting the sale of any other drugs in those establishments, the Dutch have removed the black market element from cannabis consumption for those 18 and over. Now, their drug policy can focus on those that would be running gangs, guns and drugs regardless – while those citizens who want to responsibly consume marijuana, as well as those who want to be a part of the legitimate marijuana industry, are able to do so legally at the corner coffee shop with their friends, neighbors and coworkers.

You see, it isn’t that we don’t believe that there is at least a small gateway effect for a very small percentage of people when you think of marijuana. There definitely are people who try marijuana and then move onto to other illegal substances like cocaine and heroin. But before a statement like that is taken and ran with, making policy out of panic and emotion, here are a couple of things to consider.

First of all, there are people who are simply going to experiment and progress in the usage of illegal drugs. Some of this is prohibition at work. For instance, in the 1980s, the drug ecstasy was used primarily for psychological and spiritual counseling. There weren’t armies of teens throbbing and grinding to bass music, strobe lights and glitter while flying high on a E. And this was the 80s! However, in 1985 it was listed as an illegal substance which essentially launched the rave culture amongst young people, making drugs like ecstasy cool and in demand among the youth. Some of it is quite simply the personality of a small minority of people in society – people who would seek out and use these substances regardless of their availability, illegality or communicated dangers – notice, we have heroin addicts currently. The issue is that we take this small percentage of people and make policy out of it. A stark contrast to the alcohol debate where alcoholism, binge drinking (especially amongst the college-aged), domestic abuse and alcohol-related deaths (overdose, driving under the influence) pose serious and prevalent societal issues in the United States. And yet, no calls for the prohibition of alcohol in the face of these alarming realities (we did that once, it essentially created the relationship we see between Americans and alcohol and provided a market that strengthened the criminal element in this country). We as a society understand that those who want to consume responsibly should be free to do so (most do), and those who don’t will face the consequences should their activities fall outside the laws around the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Secondly, you have to take seriously the thinking of the Dutch. They believed that if you removed cannabis from the black market and regulated it, it would drastically reduce the exposure of marijuana consumers to illicit and dangerous substances. We believe that this represents very sound logic. And it continues to pay off in the Netherlands where societal effects were in line with their thinking and goals when they chose to regulate marijuana rather than continue a senseless prohibitionist policy imported to them by the United States. For more on the actual reasons and influence behind the prohibition in the United States, read our article on the impetus for the prohibition as well as our article about the modern day “war on drugs” and the attitudes that created and enforced it. The fact is, by framing policy around facts and real understanding, they were able to have a positive impact on drug use, free up their police to chase criminals, and focus on drug addiction as a mental health issue rather than something the state should punish.

Understand, we aren’t suggesting that everyone should smoke marijuana, or that it does not pose any kind of risks which ought to be thoughtfully considered. Again, we would suggest that there is very little out there that you could say that about. But when you actually open up your viewpoint, what you find is that marijuana is far safer than alcohol, not addictive, and impacts our bodies and minds through a natural, physiological system that has evolved to interact with the compounds in this plant, not through some doped out stupor or brain damage.

The idea that marijuana acts as this gateway to other, harder, more illicit and dangerous substances is not supported by evidence, in fact it is refuted by it. Making marijuana legal in the same vein as alcohol will not result in legions of drug-addicted teens and others who will present a danger and resource drain on society. We can learn a lot from the Netherlands and their radical approach to dealing with the issue of narcotics in their country, bravely stepping out and removing marijuana from the “dangerous drug” perception handed to them by the US and regulating it like alcohol. While marijuana use certainly went up, use of drugs such as cocaine and heroin stabilized and began to fall in reaction to their policies. Do they still have criminal activity around drugs, including marijuana? Yes, there will always be criminals that will seek to operate outside of the law for various reasons. However, now their resources go towards fighting these actual criminals rather than normal everyday citizens.

Washington, now is your time to be just as bold.

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