Is Marijuana REALLY a Gateway Drug? Let’s See What the Data Suggests

Debunking the myth...
Nicole Richter / Updated on June 20, 2018

is marijuana a gateway drug

Ever since Harry Anslinger, aided and abetted by the likes of William Randolph Hearst and a healthy dose of anti-immigrant sentiment, demonized marijuana in the 1930s, the suggestion that it is a ‘gateway drug’ has pervaded the minds of Americans. The idea that weed users ‘graduate’ to deadly drugs such as heroin has spread across the globe so that even today, the old brigade that “drugs are bad m’kay [a South Park reference]” has trotted out this claim as its #1 weapon against the herb.

As you’re probably aware, when a statement is made and repeated often enough, it becomes ‘fact’ in the eyes of the public. Sadly, anti-cannabis politicians continue to use it to instill fear in their constituents. Back in 2015, then New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, a presidential candidate at the time (no laughing at the back), said he would crack down on weed sales in Colorado and Washington where it was legal for recreational use.

According to Christie: “Marijuana is a gateway drug” and “we have an enormous addiction problem in this country.” To be fair to Christie, there IS a serious addiction problem in the United States. The thing is, the addictive substances are alcohol, tobacco and opioids. Carly Fiorina, another 2016 Presidential Candidate, also spread the notion that cannabis is a gateway drug.

You can already tell what the answer to the title question is. The ‘gateway drug’ theory is based on faux-science, a poor understanding of human biology, fear mongering to gain political capital, and a desire to shift the conversation away from the real harmful and addictive substances.

When Did The ‘Marijuana is a Gateway Drug’ Theory Begin?

The term ‘gateway drug’ was first popularized by anti-drug campaigners such as Robert DuPont in the 1980s. However, the idea that cannabis resulted in an addiction to ‘harder’ drugs was discussed during the Anslinger era of the 1930s. Back then, the terms used included ‘progression hypothesis’, ‘escalation hypothesis’, and the ‘stepping-stone theory’. While it was also opined that alcohol and tobacco use in adolescents also increased later risk of illegal narcotics, marijuana was singled out for reasons we can’t fathom (only kidding, the answer is money).

Gateway Drug Evidence – Flimsy & Flawed

There is plenty of evidence to back up the Gateway Theory. The trouble is, most of it is flawed! Two major arguments used by the “Gateway people” is that marijuana users are 104 times more likely to use cocaine than people who haven’t tried weed, and also that few heroin users hadn’t smoked a joint first. This seems like a fine argument on the surface, but it is a classic case of correlation not being the same as causation. In other words, just because heroin users smoke weed, doesn’t mean that all weed smokers become heroin addicts.

Did you know that the number of people killed by dogs almost perfectly correlates with Black Friday revenue growth? It’s true! In 2008, 27 Americans were killed by dogs and Black Friday revenue was $534 million. In 2010, 38 Americans were killed by dogs and revenue on Black Friday was $648 million – an almost identical growth percentage. Basically, it seems that dogs are offended by the rampant consumerism on display and are taking humans down. Either that, or it is a coincidence with no relevance to Black Friday at all!

Also, a 2010 study published in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence Journal looked at cannabis use in Japan, a nation where weed use is far less prevalent than it is in the United States. Incredibly, 83% of hard drugs users DID NOT begin with marijuana.

In reality, poor environment and poverty are more likely to result in the use of hard drugs than is the use of marijuana. Perhaps the government should try and alleviate the appalling conditions in many American towns and cities, instead of wasting time cracking down on weed and blaming the deadly epidemic on this safe and natural herb.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has been peddling the lie for years, and even on its ‘Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?’ page (last updated in May 2018), continues to spread the myth using extremely vague language. The first sentence reads like this: “Some research suggests that marijuana use is likely to precede use of other licit and illicit substances.”

It then links to a 2015 study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, which claims that 44.7% of cannabis users progress to illicit substances! However, the authors then admit that the risk is highest amongst people with mental disorders, which surely skews the data.

There is a litany of research (some of which is discussed later) that shows we should disregard the ludicrous notion that almost every second marijuana user ends up using hard drugs. The NIDA page goes on to use a combination of outdated sources and studies riddled with flaws to make its asinine argument.

The Gateway Drug Theory Has Been Debunked

Despite the fear mongering of people like Christie, Fiorina et al., the marijuana as a gateway drug theory has been debunked for well over a decade. A 2002 RAND study dismissed the notion after thorough analysis of the United States National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Researchers concluded that adolescents were predisposed to use hard drugs, whether they tried weed or not.

According to Andrew Morral of RAND, the individuals who are predisposed to use drugs and have the opportunity to do so are more likely to use cannabis AND hard drugs. Marijuana typically comes first because it is easier to find than heroin or cocaine. In other words, it is only the availability of weed that ensures future heroin users try it first. At the time, Allen St. Pierre of NORML pointed out that there was one regular cocaine user and less than one user of heroin per 104 Americans who tried marijuana.

The huge array of evidence dismissing the Gateway Drug theory is such that even the DEA removed content about the subject from its website in 2017! The FDA also followed suit, even though it refuses to remove cannabis from its undeserved Schedule I classification. In 2016, the FDA released a 118-page document justifying its decision but admitted there wasn’t enough data to validate the theory that there is a “direct causal relationship between regular marijuana use and other illicit drug use.”

Hard data also renders the theory moot. According to a 2017 Gallup Poll, 45% of American adults have tried marijuana at least once in their lives. Other surveys place the figure at even higher levels. Since almost 45% of cannabis users apparently graduate to harder drugs, shouldn’t the streets be absolutely crawling with heroin addicts? If the Gateway Drug theory were to hold true, even suburban America would resemble a bleak, crack-laden inner city!

In reality, around 1.61% of Americans have used heroin as of 2012-2013, with 0.21% doing so within the previous year. In 2014, 0.6% of Americans aged 12+ admitted to using cocaine. Those figures don’t tally up with the idea that marijuana use is a direct route to deadly narcotic addiction. If the Gateway Theory were true, surely both figures would be closer to 10%?

The Truth About Marijuana & The Gateway Theory

Practically all studies which favor the theory are massively flawed. None more so than the 2015 study by Cadoni, Simola, Espa, Fenu, and Di Chiara which tested 344 rats.

The research team concluded that weed use ‘primes’ rodents to consume more cocaine or heroin. The thing is, rats don’t even like THC, so they are forcibly injected with it! In contrast, they voluntarily pull levers to receive opioids or cocaine.

Remember, stress is a risk factor for addiction, and one would suggest that being shot up with THC against your will might fall into the category of “stressful.” In the end, all that these studies prove is that stressed out rats are at a higher risk of addiction.

Furthermore, a 2016 study by Maguire and France showed that when Rhesus monkeys were forced to take weed, it made the effects of heroin far less attractive. This is an interesting outcome, since monkeys are far more similar to humans than rats.

Even more fascinating is the evidence that marijuana could prevent the number of opioid deaths in the United States. There are a myriad of studies which clearly show that marijuana users decrease the number of opioids they consume. If cannabis is a Gateway Drug, why does it cause people to come off hard drugs? Modern day research focuses on the reasons why addicts move through the substances systematically, rather than assuming that one drug leads to the others. This is a much more sensible approach, because you can’t establish a causal connection due to the sheer number of factors you are unable to account for.

The real reasons why people ‘graduate’ to hard drugs are far more detailed and nuanced than merely stating that they begin with weed, which eventually pushes them towards heroin and crack cocaine. Exposure to extreme childhood trauma such as neglect, emotional abuse or sexual abuse, increases the risk of alcoholism and drug use.

Socioeconomic factors also play a crucial role. While heroin use amongst the white middle class has escalated in recent years, you are still almost three times more likely to try it if you earn less than $20,000 a year, than if your annual salary is $50,000 or more.

Ultimately, it is not marijuana that is the Gateway to addiction. Rather, it is poverty, trauma and mental illness that heighten your risk of exposure to deadly narcotics. Today, the United States Government continues to ensure that marijuana is federally illegal, and spends billions enforcing archaic laws and imprisoning those in possession of marijuana. That these unfortunate individuals are usually poor, the victim of childhood trauma, or mentally ill, seems to escape the notice of politicians.

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Is Marijuana REALLY a Gateway Drug? Let’s See What the Data Suggests
June 20, 2018
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