Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: The Myth That Will Not Die

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Of all the arguments that have been used to demonize marijuana, few have been more powerful than that of the “gateway effect”: the notion that while marijuana itself may not be especially dangerous, it ineluctably leads to harder drugs like heroin and cocaine. Even Nick Kristof — in a column favoring marijuana legalization — alluded to it this week in the New York Times. In what is known as the “to be sure” paragraph, where op-ed writers cite the arguments of opponents, he wrote:

I have no illusions about drugs. One of my childhood friends in Yamhill, Ore., pretty much squandered his life by dabbling with marijuana in ninth grade and then moving on to stronger stuff. And yes, there’s some risk that legalization would make such dabbling more common.

The idea that marijuana may be the first step in a longer career of drug use seems plausible at first: when addicts tell their histories, many begin with a story about marijuana. And there’s a strong correlation between marijuana use and other drug use: a person who smokes marijuana is more than 104 times more likely to use cocaine than a person who never tries pot, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. (More on Time.com: 7 Tips for California: How to Make Legalizing Marijuana Smart)

The problem here is that correlation isn’t cause. Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang members are probably more 104 times more likely to have ridden a bicycle as a kid than those who don’t become Hell’s Angels, but that doesn’t mean that riding a two-wheeler is a “gateway” to joining a motorcycle gang. It simply means that most people ride bikes and the kind of people who don’t are highly unlikely to ever ride a motorcycle.

Scientists long ago abandoned the idea that marijuana causes users to try other drugs: as far back as 1999, in a report commissioned by Congress to look at the possible dangers of medical marijuana, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences wrote:

Patterns in progression of drug use from adolescence to adulthood are strikingly regular. Because it is the most widely used illicit drug, marijuana is predictably the first illicit drug most people encounter. Not surprisingly, most users of other illicit drugs have used marijuana first. In fact, most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana — usually before they are of legal age.

In the sense that marijuana use typically precedes rather than follows initiation of other illicit drug use, it is indeed a “gateway” drug. But because underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede marijuana use, marijuana is not the most common, and is rarely the first, “gateway” to illicit drug use. There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.

Since then, numerous other studies have failed to support the gateway idea. Every year, the federal government funds two huge surveys on drug use in the population. Over and over they find that the number of people who try marijuana dwarfs that for cocaine or heroin. For example, in 2009, 2.3 million people reported trying pot — compared with 617,000 who tried cocaine and 180,000 who tried heroin. (More on Time.com: See photos of cannabis conventions)

So what accounts for the massive correlation between marijuana use and use of other drugs? One key factor is taste. People who are extremely interested in altering their consciousness are likely to want to try more than one way of doing it. If you are a true music fan, you probably won’t stick to listening to just one band or even a single genre —  this doesn’t make lullabies a gateway to the Grateful Dead, it means that people who really like music probably like many different songs and groups.

Second is marijuana’s illegality: you aren’t likely to be able to find a heroin dealer if you can’t even score weed. Compared with pot dealers, sellers of hard drugs tend to be even less trusting of customers they don’t know, in part because they face greater penalties. But if you’ve proved yourself by regularly purchasing marijuana, dealers will happily introduce to you to their harder product lines if you express interest, or help you find a friend of theirs who can.

Holland began liberalizing its marijuana laws in part to close this particular gateway — and indeed now the country has slightly fewer young pot-smokers who move on to harder drugs compared with other nations, including the U.S. A 2010 Rand Institute report titled “What Can We Learn from the Dutch Cannabis Coffeeshop Experience?” found that there was “some evidence” for a “weakened gateway” in The Netherlands, and concluded that the data “clearly challenge any claim that the Dutch have strengthened the gateway to hard drug use.” (More on Time.com: Is Marijuana Addictive? It Depends How You Define Addiction)

Of course, that’s not the gateway argument favored by supporters of our current drug policy — but it is the one supported by science.

More on Time.com:

Best of ‘Stoner Cinema’

The Marijuana Number That Was Too Good to Check

Is Drug Use Really on the Rise?

21 comments
ErikAmes
ErikAmes

Think of it like this... I collect video games - not a casual buyer but I own over 45 game systems and thousands of games. It started back in early 90's. I thought it would be cool to collect Atari 2600 games since they are cheap at thrift stores.... then I thought hey I never owned an Intellivision wait nor an Odyssey 2 or Colecovision... spiro effect turned into hard core / pillaging thrift - garage sales - big (harmless) obsession and pays off since its highly collectable now.

Here is another true story - I knew someone that did fetish (tastefully done) erotica photos / then they started doing nudes / then they started doing adult videos with others / then she has her own adult site (again spiro effect when does it stop?)

My small town Indiana has a serious drug problem. 20 years ago only thing you heard about was booze and pot.


People start out causally getting high few pills / pot / Benadryl shots etc... people get board you want to buy that next game system you never played in your child hook / you want to experiment with doing something more than just erotica photos.... when do you draw the line? is there even a line as you get out control.


Sure there are some that are casual try something out get negative results and never look back... but lets face it we all get bored want to do something different. 

I never got into any of it. I can't say I am totally straight edge I do like my high fructose corn syrup (Pepsi).


Any major hard drug bust they always find pot too.  Why are so many young people ODing on heroin in small town Indiana? How can someone peer pressure another person into sticking a needle in their arm? Or start doing something that even the most hardcore people can't quit. It starts somewhere I blame the alcohol too.


Just my angle on the scene...

Erik

DavidCrosbie
DavidCrosbie

Clearly it is a gateway drug, gateway to illegal drugs; but when it is legal it will surely lose its gateway status.  It remains illegal because of the moral enforcement minority (mem) who would ban alcohol, and cigarettes AND the grand profits made by the criminals profiting from marijuana sales, marketing AND the customer list of people convinced by their own experience of the government lie. Since this salesman uncovered an obvious truth (and made marijuana available) why not consider that maybe the rest of his stuff has been lied about as well.  The government needs, particularly in this case, to quit telling educated people to believe lies.  Unfortunately, history has accumulated much distrust of government; legalization with great taxation would eliminate the gateway, and increase revenue; though it might un-employ some drug agents and jail guards.  No doubt the pot market will be able to offer them more productive employment.

elfnzee
elfnzee

It is not a gateway drug people the only reason that it is accused of being that is because in the 70'sMarijuana was getting easier to get and people got it smoked it and the one's who wanted to experiment with a real hard drug did so with no help from Marijuana,and I know people who started out doing acid,cocaine,MDA,because at first marijuana was not that great it brought them down and they wanted to speed up and so goes this myth of a gateway drug,it dam sure did not make me want to do hard stuff so get it right,,,,

Paradise5551
Paradise5551

Its like saying that Video games will lead to violence in the real life.

JoshThompson
JoshThompson

Alcohol and it's stature in society is the gateway drug.


tikiredshirts2011
tikiredshirts2011

yes a bunch of BS I smoked pot,drink, and did cocaine in my younger days, never got hooked on any other drugs and was able to hold down 2 jobs for 25 years. if you are weak then you will fall to whatever gets you the newer drugs are really bad. but pot is not a gateway you stuck up americans go watch little house on the prairie

RonTallon
RonTallon

It is SO ridiculous.  I really cannot imagine that smoking pot is illegal and alcohol is OK.   It does not make a bit of sense.    Here is a plant that would grow naturally in your yard and if you have any growing there you can go to prison.   Incredible.

PaulHawkins
PaulHawkins

I have been smoking marijuana for 30 years, and have never tried Heroin. The Gateway argument is invalid 


SabrinaLanier
SabrinaLanier

People who want to blame everything on pot always ask addicts what their first illegal drug was...the addict says pot and they conclude that pot started the whole downhill spiral. No. If people REALLY wanted the truth, they would ask these addicts what PRESCRIPTION DRUG they started using first. Many, many, MANY times you will hear: Ritolin or some other form of ADD/ADHD drug. Too many children are being given these scripted drugs! Too many children are being diagnosed incorrectly with ADD/ADHD. Even healthcare professionals are starting to fess up that these drugs have been over-prescribed. Why does this matter? Because of TWO things. #1 - Having an unruly, energetic child diagnosed with ADD/ADHD (when they DON'T have it....I'm not talking about the real cases...so calm down if you suddenly have your panties wadded up because you feel your child really has the issue...I'm not talking about YOU.) tells your child: "You are damaged." the child starts to see themselves as damaged and acts accordingly...often blaming their actions on their diagnosis instead of taking accountability for what they choose to do. #2 - The WORST thing of all!!!! You start giving them a prescription med to "cure them". Now you have taken the first step in drug dependency with your child. You are not only telling them they are damaged, but you are also telling them there's a magic pill to fix them. THESE are the REAL gateway drugs. Stop blaming pot. Start taking accountability for telling your child scripted drugs will solve all their problems at a young age. "Hey Junior...Don't do drugs! But also, don't forget to take your Ritolin." If this pisses you off...it should. 

RubenPoblete
RubenPoblete

I think everyone is missing the real problem.....the reason i think its a gateway drug is that drug dealers are out to make money..with that said..... what better way.. then to create an addict.... the dealer where you normally get your weed from...will eventually say " im out.. there is no weed available... but i have some of this... ( something addictive enough to make you come back everyday... with more money)   here.. just try it... opening the gateway" get their hooks in..and create a junkie... all you got to do is try it... so its not just peer pressure... or the science of smoking weed will make you do other drugs... its economics. drug dealers make more money a lot more money with other drugs....especially when you come back more often. economics.

Constantobserver
Constantobserver

Yes, the gateway drug research doesn't prove cause and effect, just a strong association.  What was left out of the analysis is that millions try alcohol and tobacco, but only a small fraction ever go on to heroin or cocaine.  A 104 times more likely to use heroin or cocaine if you used marijuana takes on a different perspective in the context of other commonly available substances we can abuse. 

david.lawrence.moore
david.lawrence.moore

ARE YOU GUYS SERIOUS?????? 

it is NOT a "Gateway Drug" it is all peer pressure!!!!

You are who YOU hang out with!!!!

give me money for a study ill prove it hahaha. 

ashton092295
ashton092295

Something this article and most fail to understand is that using any illegal drug puts most people in a group that is prone to using other illicit drugs. There is a saying "Tell me who you hang out with and I will tell you who you are." People, it is not the drug that causes you to try other drugs, its the people you use with and the group that encourages you to use by supplying and sharing. This article does not see that, I lived it.

violaandme
violaandme

I tried Cocaine three before I used Marijuana and two years before I drank alcohol two and a half before cigarettes and meth I am happy to say that 20 years later Marijuana and cigarettes are the only two I now use only one is willingly and can take or leave the other for instance I have not used one for three months one I just finished about three minutes ago guess which one I can't seem to kick

trillian6
trillian6

the biggest problem w/this theory seems to me that I would bet a yearspaycheck that every tweaker or heroib user out there had at some point in their life had a cup of coffee, or milk, or apple pie , before picking up a joint or a pipe - does this make these gateway drugs too?

JimBelfiore
JimBelfiore

the real "gateway drugs" are cigarettes and alcohol

CodyJackson
CodyJackson

@ashton092295 That's an indirect point of this article. It's trying to say that it's not the drug itself that is causing the issues. 

IdeClair1
IdeClair1

@JimBelfiore  


They are gateways to bad health and bad habits -  but not to dependencies on worse drugs..