The Myth of Marijuana’s Gateway Theory Effect

April 4, 2011 By 12 comments
Marijuana Gateway Theory

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, in cooperation with the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, recently announced a new anti-drug campaign that specifically targets marijuana. Instead of featuring horror tales of marijuana-induced insanity, violence and birth detects, this campaign is built upon the premise that reducing marijuana use is a practical strategy for reducing the use of more dangerous drugs.

The primary basis for this “gateway hypothesis” is a recent report by the center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), claiming that marijuana users are 85 times more likely than non-marijuana users to try coc*ine. This figure, using data from NIDA’s 1991 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, is close to being meaningless. It was calculated by dividing the proportion of marijuana users who have ever used coc*ine (17%) by the proportion of coc*ine users who have never used marijuana (.2%). The high risk-factor obtained is a product not of the fact that so many marijuana users use coc*ine but that so many cocaine users used marijuana previously.

It is hardly a revelation that people who use one of the least popular drugs are likely to use the more popular ones — not only marijuana, but also alcohol and tobacco cigarettes. The obvious statistic not publicized by CASA is that most marijuana users — 83 percent — never use coca*ne. Indeed, for the nearly 70 million Americans who have tried marijuana, it is clearly a “terminus” rather than a “gateway” drug.

During the last few years, after a decade of decline, there has been a slight increase in marijuana use, particularly among youth. In 1994, 38 percent of high school seniors reported having ever tried the drug, compared to about 35 percent in 1993 and 33 percent in 1992. This increase does not constitute a crisis. No one knows whether marijuana use-rates will continue to rise. But even if they do, it will not necessarily lead to increased use of coca*ne.

Since the 1970s, when NIDA first began gathering data, rates of marijuana and cocaine use have displayed divergent patterns. Marijuana prevalence increased throughout the 1970s, peaking in 1979, when about 60 percent of high school seniors reported having used it at least once. During the 1980s, cocaine use increased while marijuana use was declining. Since 1991, when data for the CASA analysis were gathered, marijuana use-rates have increased while coca*ne use-rates have remained fairly steady.

The over-changing nature of the statistical relationship between use-rate for marijuana and coc*ine indicates the absence of a causal link between the use of these two drugs. Therefore, even if the proposed Partnership campaign were to be effective in reducing marijuana use it would not guarantee a proportional reduction in the number of people who use cocaine. To the extent anti-drug campaigns are effective, they seem to be most effective in deterring those people who would have been fairly low-level users. There is no reason to believe that anti-marijuana messages of any sort would deter many of those marijuana users — currently 17 percent of the total — who also develop an interest in coc*ine.

Nor is there reason to believe that the Partnership’s new campaign will actually reduce the overall number of marijuana users. For a decade now, American youth have been subjected to an unparalleled assault of anti-drug messages. They have seen hundreds of Partnership advertisements, on television and in the print media. They have been urged to “just say no” by rock stars, sports heroes, presidents and first-ladies. They have been exposed to anti-drug educational programs in the schools. Yet this is the same generation of young people that recently began increasing its use of marijuana. It seems unlikely that many of them will be deterred by hyperbolic claims of marijuana’s gateway effect, particularly when it contradicts the reality of drug use they see around them.

If the creators of American drug policy are truly interested in reducing the risk of marijuana users using other drugs, they should take a closer look at Holland, where drug policy since the 1970s has been guided by a commitment to diminishing any potential gateway effect. Wanting to keep young marijuana users away from cocaine and other “hard drugs,” the Dutch decided to separate the retail markets by allowing anyone 18 years of age or older to purchase marijuana openly in government-controlled “coffee shops” which strictly prohibit the use and sale of other drugs.

Despite easy availability, marijuana prevalence among 12 to 18 year olds in Holland is only 13.6 percent — well below the 38 percent use-rate for American high school seniors. More Dutch teenagers use marijuana now than in the past; indeed, lifetime prevalence increased nearly three-fold between 1984 and 1992, from

4.8 to 13.6 percent. However, Dutch officials consider their policy a success because the increase in marijuana use has not been accompanied by an increase in the use of other drugs. For the last decade, the rate of cocaine use among Dutch youth has remained stable, with about .3 percent of 12-18 year olds reporting having used it in the past month.

In the United States, the claim that marijuana acts as a gateway to the use of other drugs serves mainly as a rhetorical tool for frightening Americans into believing that winning the war against her*in and coc*ine requires waging & battle against the casual use of marijuana. Not only is the claim intellectually indefensible, but the battle is wasteful of resources and fated to failure.

by John P. Morgan, M.D. and Lynn Zimmer, Ph.D.

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  • TorturedSoul

    Cannabis was NOT the first drug I ever tried. Alcohol was. Cannabis wasn’t the second, either.

    Gateway? Cannabis allowed me to kick the “habits” of my drug addictions. I have known two people who found it useful in the same way. There are actually a few countries in the world that PRESCRIBE cannabis as a tool for helping people break their addictions. Here in the United States, they prescribe… methadone. Just doing their part to support the pharmaceutical giants, I guess.

    Gateway drug? Yeah… Gateway to sanity. It seems that some still frown on the concept.

  • THsea

    Great article, and so true. Cannabis never once inspired me to try another drug. Actually, the other way around!!!!
    Hell, I started it to get off of prescription drugs! I know that immune-suppressants aren’t recreational. But I was never searching for a recreational drug. I was looking for medicine that worked and let me have a life like all the other healthy people.

    Why do hard drugs that have come downs? It’s like your borrowing good time in advance to know you will have a bad time later! Absurd! The only ill effect of cannabis is dry mouth. How many “hard drugs” can have their downsides completely wiped out with a glass of water?

    Cannabis is a gateway only to health, and maybe over snacking… Maybe it has two ill effects.

  • rare65

    Gateway drug my f*****g a**. I was hopelessly hooked on paiun killers, oxycontin, fentanyl, and just aboutevery other opiate pill available to me. I lost a leg nine years ago. And I thought that that was what I was supposed to do, EAT PAIN KILLERS. And boy did I. Hell, i’ve overdosed, and was pronounced CLINICALY DEAD, THREE-TIMES. So i don’t but this gateway drug hypothesis that our represenitives have seemed to prescribe to. Simply put I started using maruijuana to ease the pain of my leg and my degenerative disc disease. And, oh my, does it work.

    So F**K all of those bastards sitting high upon Capitol Hill. I will continue to use marijuana, simply because, I am an adult and what I choose to do with my own time is nobodies business but mine.

    I really did enjoy reading such well crafted words. My only wish is that I were that eloquent.

  • adobeboxer

    This isn’t about the hypocricy or past habits of politicians. The point is is that the biggest drug warriors of today were once pot smokers, or, in the very least dabbled in the plant. However, to rub the nose of politicians in their youthful indiscretions and predilections does nothing to change the one overarching fact about the war on drugs: it is the ritual persecution of drugs and its users, a metabolism of modern culture, to paraphrase Thomas Szasz. And the fact that marijuana is a plant, and not a drug, makes no difference. It is its symbolic capital, for both the conservative and liberal elements in their respective state, that is important to note.

  • Frostleaf

    This article was very succinctly put and I stand behind everything the author stated. I don’t even need to touch on the fact that people like rare65 had difficult issues and this helped them out. When can we just start impeaching officials out of their own ignorance?

  • Slizzard

    This is a nice article. I knew that Mj was not actually a gateway drug but I hadn’t seen the facts behind it.

  • thedead1957

    ….president Obama doesn’t know his ass form a hole in the ground, he’s believing all the crap that doing herb makes you go on to harder drugs, WELL, MR> PRESIDENT, let me enlighten you on the subject, pot has only made me want more pot, I don’t need an addiction to something harder, first I’m allergic to cacaine, don’t need acid, not even a pill to make me feel good, a joint with a beer is a nice way to go but even then I prefer to stick with a joint, it relieves the pain I suffer from RA(rhemetoid arthritis), my creativity levels increase while smoking. So in short it helps me out on a daily basis. Those that have never smoked it always put it down, not realising the benefits from it’s use, tobbaco is a drug that affects millions world-wide and it harmful effects can be seen, drinking beer and the harder alcohol kills more than weed EVER HAS, legalizing a substance like Marijuana would also aid in the recovery of our nations overwheming debt, it can be taxed just like it’s done with fruits and vegetables, so what’s the REAL ISSUE here, you must be afraid people will misjudge you, or that that old crap “..it leads to otrher drugs” it’s people that lead to other drugs not pot. IT’S TIME TO WAKE UP A SMELL WHAT YOU AND OTHERS LIKE YOU ARE SHOVELING……the way people think must be the issue, no mind for what’s the truth about shit, yes there are thos that go overboard and then there’s people like me, I’ve been smoking it since I was eight years old, hasn’t caused me to go to harder drugs, nor have I killed anybody, and to say you might do it as far as legalization of goes, then turn your back on the subject will only insure the fact that you won’t be the next president – FOR SURE ! ! ! …..that’s all I have to say about this just wish you’d wake up…..SOON ! ! !

  • sandalwood43

    I have been using MJ for over 50 years and have never desired to use any other drugs. I have stopped when I want to and go back to smoking when I want. The only thing I have been addicted to was cigarettes and I quit smoking that 20 yrs ago.

  • Kees

    After 42 years of MJ I have somehow led a succesful, normal life. It has helped me quit drinking and served me well when I had physical injury, or just needed to feel better. I have tried numerous drugs in my lifetime, but always went back to natures gift. Corporate greed keeps the lawmakers on their side while otherwise innocent have their lives ruined. I had hoped to see MJ legalized by now, but the the powerful self interest groups who need to keep it illegal keep trotting out the same old arguments when it’s decision time. We need to educate those around us, tell everyone know just how much BS the Govt is telling us, the real truth about our favourite herb. When everyone knows the truth, thats when the laws will change.

  • BIGxBARE

    Here’s one way I argue against the gateway argument. Say the government said water was the only thing good for you and outlawed soda and milk due to their “harmful effects” and the “Milky Madness” you will suffer from. Now say you finally decide to drink some milk, you realize hey it’s not that bad and notice none of the negative effects that the government had warned you about. Now since the government told you Milk was bad, and soda too. And you’ve found out that they were feeding you a bunch of bull, you’re probably more inclined to try some soda now too.
    So if there is any type of gateway effect I believe it’s the government who has created this effect by outlawing something that should be perfectly legal.
    Just my .02

  • TorturedSoul

    Best argument I know against the fallacy is the fact that many people have successfully used cannabis to help them STOP consuming addictive hard drugs. In fact, in some more enlightened and less darkly governed countries, it is prescribed for exactly that use (among others).

  • Blotboy

    Iv’e had chronic “spontaneous” shoulder dislocations, and marijuana helped me to cope with the pain. The Idea that it is a gateway drug is absurd, once I experienced the beauty of weed I made up my mind there and then to never have anything else. I have been smoking weed for 3 years and never once thought about doing any other drug.