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Marijuana And The Gateway Theory NORML
Report, NOV 1996
Since the earliest stages of marijuana prohibition, critics have maintained that
one of marijuana's greatest dangers is its potential to be used as a gateway to
harder drugs. Currently, this notion serves as one of the key facets of the prohibitionist
argument. Ironically, there exists little scientific data to support this theory.
Depending on society's
hard-drug of choice throughout the past century, prohibitionists have consistently
branded marijuana as the inevitable gateway. For example, marijuana prohibitionist
and one of the chief proponents of the gateway theory, Gabriel Nahas, has claimed:
"It appears that the biochemical changes induced by marijuana in the brain result
in drug-seeking, drug taking behavior, which in many instances will lead the user
to experiment with other pleasurable substances. The risk of progression from
marijuana to cocaine to heroin is now well documented."
According to much of the scientific literature, however, this assessment could
not be further from the truth.
One of the first major studies to debunk the gateway theory was commissioned by
New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1938. The six year study, conducted
by a team of scientists from the New York Academy of Medicine, was the most comprehensive,
extensive marijuana fact-finding mission since the Indian Hemp Drug Commission
released its monumental approximately 50 years earlier. Released in 1944 as "The
LaGuardia Report," the study found that:
use of marijuana does not lead to morphine or heroin or cocaine addiction. ...The
instances are extremely rare where the habit of marihuana (sic) smoking is associated
with addiction to these narcotics."
In 1972, President Richard Nixon appointed a panel of politicians and leading
addiction scholars to examine federal policy regarding marijuana. The commission,
headed by former Pennsylvania governor Raymond P. Schafer, contracted a study
of 105 middle class California marijuana smokers to investigate marijuana's alleged
gateway potential. According to the commision's findings,
the exception of marihuana (sic) and hashish, no drug was used by more than 25
percent of this population and this use was almost exclusively experimental."
This led the commission
to conclude that,
of other drug use was relatively low, [even among] frequent marihuana users."
Regarding the patterns
of use among adolescent marijuana users, the commission stated that,
"a majority of [high school
marijuana users] have used no other illicit drug, and they tend to be experimental
or intermittent users of marihuana (sic)."
The issue of marijuana's purported gateway effect was explored yet again several
years later in a federally contracted study for the Center for Studies of Narcotics
and Drug Abuse of the National Institute of Mental Health. Directed by Drs. Vera
Rubin and Lambros Comitas of the Research Institute for the Study of Man and conducted
in Jamaica, the study was hailed as "the first intensive multidiscplinary study
of marijuana use to be published." Summarizing the findings of the study in
the July 4, 1975 issue of Science Magazine, Dr. Erich Goode of the State university
of New York at Stony Brook wrote:
of the more interesting findings to emerge from this study relates to the 'stepping-stone'
hypothesis. ... Nothing like that occurs among heavy, chronic ganja smokers of
Jamaica. No other drugs were used, aside from aspirin, tea, alcohol, and tobacco.
The only hard drug use known on the island is indulged by North American tourists."
A fourth federally
contracted study reaffirmed this conclusion some years later. Conducted by the
Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and released in
1982, the 15-month study analyzed the habits of American marijuana smokers and
offered one of the most comprehensive and balanced analyses ever compiled regarding
marijuana and its effects. In regards to marijuana's gateway potential, the study
concluded that, "There is no evidence to support the belief that the use of one
drug will inevitably lead to the use of any other drug."
Although never fully laid to rest, the much maligned gateway theory returned to
prominence in the early 1990s driven by statements made by the Center on Addiction
and Substance Abuse (CASA) and it's head Joseph Califano. Armed with statistics
from the 1991 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, CASA announced that marijuana
users are 85 times more likely than non-marijuana users to try cocaine. However,
as pointed out by NORML board members Drs. John P. Morgan and Lynn Zimmer, this
figure is close to meaningless. It was calculated by dividing the proportion of
adolescent marijuana users who have ever used cocaine by the proportion of cocaine
users who have never used marijuana. The high risk factor is a product not of
the fact that so many marijuana users use cocaine, but that so many cocaine users
used marijuana previously.
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,"
Perhaps more damning than any other indictment of the "gateway" hypothesis is
that it fails to hold up in the face of the federal government's own statistics
regarding drug use. For example, as marijuana use increased in the 1960s and 1970s,
heroin use declined; while cocaine use was increasing in the early 1980s, marijuana
use was declining. Over the past 20 years, marijuana use rates have fluctuated
dramatically while the use of hallucinogens has hardly changed at all. Most importantly,
federal statistics indicate that although nearly 66 million Americans over age
12 have experimented with marijuana at some point in their lifetime, less than
one-third of them have ever tried cocaine. Moreover, less than 16 million
Americans admit to having ever experimented with LSD, less than 7 million have
ever tried methamphetamines, and only 2.5 million have ever graduated to heroin.
In sum, federal statistics conclude that the overwhelming majority of American
marijuana users do not move on to harder drugs.
It is worth noting that many scientists and physicians within our own government
now dismiss the validity of the "gateway theory." For example, the 1995 guidebook:
Marijuana: Facts for Teens, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human
Services (HHS), states unequivocally that, "Most marijuana users do not go on
to use other drugs." In addition, similar 1996 literature from the HHS reasons
that the minority of marijuana users who do graduate to harder drugs do so not
because of marijuana use, but because of marijuana prohibition. "Using marijuana
puts children and teens in contact with people who are users and sellers of other
drugs," states Marijuana: What Parents Need to Know. "So there is more of a chance
for a marijuana user to be exposed and urged to try more drugs."
Further support for this theory is provided by the Netherlands where marijuana
is allowed to be purchased openly in government-regulated "coffee shops" designed
specifically to separate young marijuana users from illegal markets where harder
drugs are sold. As a result, just 1.8 percent of Dutch youth report having tried
cocaine and 75 percent of adult cannabis users do not report other drug use.
Consequently, it seems that when the cannabis markets are effectively separated
from the harder drugs, marijuana is clearly a "terminus" rather than a gateway
gateway theory still remains a staple in prohibitionist rhetoric, the facts indicate
it to be a blatant falsehood. Moreover, any correlation between marijuana use
and hard drug use can be linked to federal policies that place marijuana in the
same underground markets as hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. Consequently,
politicians who voice concern about marijuana being a possible gateway to harder
drugs should review the facts and support policies that would effectively separate
marijuana from the black market.
G. Keep Off the Grass. Paul S. Eriksson, Middlebury, Vermont, 1985.
2 The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York: Sociological, Medical, Psychological,
and Pharmacological Studies by the Mayors Committee on Marihuana. The Jaques Cattell
Press, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1944, p. 25.
3 Ibid., p. 13.
4 Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding: First Report of the National Commission
on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.,
1972, pps. 45-46.
5 Sullivan, Walter. "Marijuana Study by U.S. Finds No Serious Harm." New York
Times: July 5, 1975.
6 Goode, Erich. "Effects of Cannabis in Another Culture." Science Magazine: July
1975, pp. 41-42.
7 Marijuana and Health: Report of a Study by a Committee of the Institute of Medicine.
National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1982, p. 47.
8 Drs. Morgan, John and Zimmer, Lynn. "The Myth of Marijuana's Gateway Effect."
NORML's Active Resistance, Spring 1995, p. 9.
Morgan, John and Zimmer, Lynn. Exposing Marijuana Myths: A Review of the Scientific
Evidence. Open Society Institute, New York City, 1995, p. 14.
11 Preliminary Estimates from the 1995 Household Survey on Drug Abuse. U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services. Washington, D.C. August 1996, p. 56.
12 Marijuana: Facts for Teens. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Washington,
D.C. 1995, p. 10.
13 Marijuana: What Parents Need to Know. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Washington, D.C. 1995, p. 11.
14 Drs. Morgan, John and Zimmer, Lynn. Exposing Marijuana Myths: A Review of the
15 Cohen, Peter, et al. Cannabis Use, A Stepping Stone to Other Drugs? 1996.