Debunked: Why Cannabis Is Not A Gateway Drug
We have all heard it, “don’t smoke marijuana, it is a slippery slope to harder drugs”. Mothers scare their children with it, and anti-cannabis campaigners won’t hesitate to beat anyone and everyone over the head with the phrase. The thing is though, it has long been known that this simply isn’t true.
DEBUKING A MYTH: THE AGE OLD MISTAKE OF CORRELATION VS CAUSATION
The idea that cannabis may be a gateway to harder substances, and life-destroying addiction, is not a hard pill to swallow for the average person. You will often find, that when addicts tell their story, it is often marijuana they first used – making it very easy to make misguided assumptions. However, every bit of research that suggests cannabis is a gateway to harder drugs, and life ruining addiction, all fail to establish causation.
Yes, there is certainly a correlation, but this means very little in practical terms. There is a correlation between increased ice cream sales and increased violent crime, but you wouldn’t say that someone buying ice cream is more prone to violence. No, there are a number of common factors that link these correlations without one directly causing the other. In the above example, it is hot weather. Hot weather increases the sale of ice cream, and hot weather makes people more irritable and prone to violence. One does not cause the other.
It is working along this reasoning that most scientists long abandoned the idea that cannabis actually causes harder drug use. Even as far back as 1999, a research report made to the US Congress found that “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs”.
Ever since, there have been many studies all trying to explore the connection in greater detail. They either fail to establish causation, or say outright that there isn’t any. A prime example of research that would suggest that there is no causation is the annual drug survey conducted by the US Federal Government. For example, in 2009 it was reported that 2.3 million people tried marijuana, whilst only 180,000 tried heroin and 617,000 tried cocaine. If cannabis were actually a gateway, the numbers for the latter two drugs would be significantly higher.
SO WHAT IS CAUSING THE CORRELATION?
Most of the scientific community are in agreement that cannabis itself, and the act of using it, is not the influence that causes harder drug use. So what is it that causes the correlation? There are a number of theories on this, and the answer is likely to be a combination of them all.
The first line of thought is that those who use marijuana and hard drugs were in the mind-set to so anyway. Meaning these people are generally interested in altering their perceptions and altering their consciousness. In this situation, it is not marijuana, but a simple desire to experiment with drugs that leads to expanded use.
The second most prevalent theory is the illegal status of cannabis encourages the use of harder drugs. Having to deal with shady characters on the street increases exposure to the illicit drugs market, and as you become more known to a dealer, the likelihood of being offered harder substances increases.
An example of how prohibition could actually be to blame for this is right here in the Netherlands. Ever since cannabis became liberalised and tolerated, the amount of young users moving onto harder substances has dropped, (young users being one of the main fears of the gateway theories). In fact, a 2010 report found there was evidence for a “weakened gateway” thanks to our policies and practices. It will be very interesting to see how things turn out in places like Colorado, where cannabis has been fully legalised. Initial reports suggest that thanks to legalisation, teenage use of marijuana is dropping, but will it lead to less people moving onto harder substances? We believe so.
There are of course, many potential reasons – to the point you could write a thesis on it – we haven’t covered things like traumatic life events, stress, socioeconomic factors, peer pressure; the list goes on. What we can say with some certainty, is that the factors linking cannabis and harder drug use - - that have so many people fearing it as a gateway drug -- are social constructs, not a result of the actual plant itself.
ALCOHOL: THE REAL ENEMY?
There is research out there to suggest that it is actually alcohol, if anything, which acts as a gateway – not marijuana. The results were so profound that the authors recommended shifting focus away from things like marijuana, and pushing to educate teenagers on alcohol.
Even with this information, millions of people are able to enjoy alcohol every day without moving onto harder drugs. The same can be said for cannabis. If a suburban housewife can enjoy a glass (or bottle) of wine in the evening without getting the urge to shoot up some heroin, we are pretty sure a stoner can enjoy a joint responsibly as well. It all boils down to the fact that no matter how hard anyone tries, there is no evidence to suggest cannabis is a gateway drug – yet there is plenty to say it isn’t. Correlation is not causation.