Although even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that marijuana is not a gateway drug, it is a standard claim of conservatives.
In response to the question it raises, “Does marijuana use lead to other drug use?” the CDC says,
The majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, “harder” substances. More research is needed to understand if marijuana is a “gateway drug” — a drug that is thought to lead to the use of more dangerous drugs (such as cocaine or heroin).
But in their quest to uphold government prohibitions on marijuana use, conservatives often state that marijuana is a gateway drug. One day you could be smoking marijuana and the next day you might be found dead in your apartment with a syringe in your arm and your bloodstream full of heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines, and amphetamine like Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Typical is Cully Stimson of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that believes in the Constitution, limited government, federalism, free enterprise, individual freedom, and the free market — except when it comes to the subject of marijuana.
Stimson is the “Deputy Director of the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, Manager, National Security Law Program and Senior Legal Fellow,” and “is a widely recognized expert in national security, homeland security, crime control, drug policy and immigration.”
Marijuana is an addictive, gateway drug. It significantly impairs bodily and mental functions, and its use is related to increased violence. These are facts.
The recent findings by the Journal of Addiction from Kings College London show that marijuana is highly addictive, causes mental health problems, and is a gateway drug to other illegal and dangerous drugs.
In addition to marijuana’s harmful effects on the body, the expected increase in health costs associated with its use, and its relationship to criminal conduct, marijuana is a gateway drug that can, and often does, lead users to more dangerous drugs. Prosecutors, judges, police officers, detectives, parole or probation officers and even defense attorneys know that the vast majority of defendants arrested for violent crimes test positive for illegal drugs, including marijuana. They also know that marijuana is the starter drug of choice for most criminals.
Most conservative drug warriors never have an original thought. Plagiarism abounds in their arguments.
Also writing for the Heritage Foundation, here is Hans A. von Spakovsky, the “Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow, Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies,” and “an authority on a wide range of issues — including civil rights, civil justice, the First Amendment, immigration, the rule of law, and government reform”:
One of the greatest harms of marijuana legalization is increased addiction to and use of harder drugs. Prosecutors, judges, police officers and others involved in the criminal justice system know that the vast majority of defendants arrested for violent crimes test positive for illegal drugs, including marijuana. And they know marijuana is the starter drug for most criminals.
Compare that quotation from von Spakovsky from “Sorry 4/20 Smokers: Legalizing Weed Is a Dangerous Idea” (April 21, 2017) with the above quotation by Stimson from “How Pot Advocates Are Manipulating the Truth” (December 2, 2012).
And then there is Kevin Sabet, the president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), who has also written for the Heritage Foundation. He is the author of Reefer Sanity: Seven Great Myths about Marijuana (2013), which I critiqued here, and, most recently, Smoke Screen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know (2021).
In a 2017 interview with New Jersey’s Asbury Park Press about marijuana legalization in that state, Sabet was asked,
Governor Christie, who has consistently opposed legalization of marijuana, contends pot is a so-called gateway drug, that people who use pot will eventually graduate to harder, more dangerous substances. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it hasn’t found a definitive answer on that question yet. What is your position and what are the most definitive studies you can cite to bolster it?
It’s important to keep in mind that marijuana on its own is harmful. The average potency of marijuana has skyrocketed since the 1970s and research demonstrates it is associated with substance use disorders, drugged driving crashes, lower IQ, and other negative consequences. In fact, today, more young people are voluntarily seeking treatment for marijuana addiction than for all other drugs combined, including alcohol.
That said, a wide array of research has confirmed links between marijuana use and other drugs. While it is true most marijuana users won’t go on to use other drugs, research demonstrates that 99 percent of those addicted to other drugs started with alcohol and marijuana. Marijuana users are also three times more likely than non-users to become addicted to heroin, and a 2017 National Academy of Sciences report found a statistical association between marijuana use and the development of substance dependence for other drugs like opioids and heroin.
Sabet was also asked,
Some studies have indicated that there is at least a correlation between marijuana use and eventual use of more dangerous drugs, even if there is no clear causal relationship. Do you agree?
Yes. The peer-reviewed 2017 National Academy of Sciences report found a statistical association between marijuana use and the development of substance dependence for other drugs, such as opioids and heroin.
Another large, nationally representative study of U.S. adults published in the 2015 International Journal of Drug Policy called “Probability and Predictors of the Cannabis Gateway Effect” found that more than four in 10 people who ever use marijuana will go on to use other illicit drugs.
There are three things that need to be said in response to the conservatives’ use of the idea that “marijuana is a gateway drug” in their defense of government prohibitions on marijuana use.
First of all, many disagree that marijuana is a gateway drug — such as Paul Armentano, the deputy director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, whose writing on “cannabis and cannabis policy has appeared in over 1,000 publications.” The aforementioned Asbury Park Press asked Armentano the same questions as it did Kevin Sabet.
It is time for politicians to put to rest the myth that cannabis is a gateway to the use of other controlled substances, a theory that is neither [sic] supported by modern science or empirical data.
More than 60 percent of American adults acknowledge having tried cannabis, but the overwhelming majority of these individuals never go on to try another illicit substance. And by the time these individuals reach age 30, most of them have significantly decreased their cannabis use or no longer indulge in the substance at all. Further, nothing in marijuana’s chemical composition alters the brain in a manner that makes users more susceptible to experimenting with other drugs. That’s why both the esteemed Institute of Medicine and the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center conclude “Marijuana has no causal influence over hard drug initiation.”
By contrast, a growing body of evidence now exists to support the counter notion that, for many people, cannabis serves as a path away from the use of more dangerous substances, including opioids, alcohol, prescription drugs, cocaine and tobacco.
Second, what if marijuana is a gateway drug? What if every person who smokes marijuana immediately and inexorably craves harder drugs? What if every person who ever tried cocaine or heroin first tried marijuana? What if every person who ever overdosed on crystal meth or LSD began his drug use by smoking marijuana? What if those things were all true? Even if all of them were true, it wouldn’t change anything. The case for marijuana legalization does not depend in any way on marijuana’s not being a gateway drug. It actually makes no difference whatsoever.
And third, if you are looking for a gateway drug, then the real gateway drug is alcohol (ethanol — the active ingredient in all beers, wines, and distilled spirits). What person who ever smoked pot, snorted cocaine, injected heroin, or popped ecstasy pills did not go down the long and winding road to being a drug addict without first getting drunk on alcohol? And what wino or lush didn’t get his start by taking a few sips of his grandfather’s beer when he was a kid? The conclusion is inescapable: If conservatives were really serious about the dangers of gateway drugs, then they would try to get the government to ban beer — the real gateway drug.
If conservatives really believed in the Constitution, federalism, and limited government, they would never look to the federal government to prohibit marijuana no matter how much of a gateway drug it was.