Read any War on Drugs literature and you would undoubtedly come across claims that marijuana is a gateway drug. This claim is also one of the reasons why the US Drug Enforcement Agency keeps marijuana on the list of prohibited substances. But is there truth to the claim that marijuana is a gateway drug?
Yes, it is!
The Institute for Behavior and Health’s president, Robert L. DuPont, wrote that a significant majority of heroin users started out with marijuana and alcohol in their teens. And this early exposure to marijuana and alcohol can predispose the brain to addiction later on in life.
Moreover, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse article, people who use marijuana are more than likely to become alcoholic. NIDA also said that marijuana use is also related to other substance abuse problems.
DuPont added that people who are addicted to cannabis are also predisposed to be addicted to heroin.
No, it isn’t!
Drug Policy Alliance founder and executive director Ethan Nadelmann did not mince words when asked about marijuana as a gateway drug. He said it’s a very small amount of truth mixed with a whole lot of “bull.” Nadelmann conceded it is true that a lot of those who are now using cocaine and heroin once used marijuana, alcohol or tobacco, but that does not necessarily mean that marijuana is a gateway drug. His proof? A big majority of marijuana users never “graduates” to harder and more dangerous drugs.
Meanwhile, Deborah Peterson Small, the executive director of Break the Chains, wrote that the link between marijuana and serious drug addiction is not supported by facts. Small said that the focus on marijuana has shifted the spotlight away from the real problems or the real causes of addiction, which include trauma, poverty, and mental health problems. Add to these the problems arising from the stigma against marijuana use and its continued criminalization.
Small also wrote that keeping marijuana illegal has ceased to be a public health issue for those who earn from it. Small alleged that political and economic interests have unfairly made marijuana a scapegoat. On the government side, Small noted that marijuana use is being utilized to exclude people from public housing and public benefits. Not to mention companies that manufacture drug tests and run prisons also benefit from it.
Small contended that the legalization of marijuana will help people who use it to do so without fear of getting punished, and it can help treat those who may need rehabilitation in the off chance that they do develop an addiction.
To allegations that marijuana might not be safe to use, there is evidence that marijuana is actually safer than prescription painkillers. One of the problems of using opioids in managing chronic pain is that the body develops tolerance for the drug, which means you need to take more and more painkillers to help them deal with the pain. But sometimes, this can lead to fatal overdoses. With the introduction of medical marijuana in the market, it is seen that people are overdosing less when they use medical marijuana, either exclusively or together with prescription painkillers to deal with chronic pain.
Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Colleen Barry had written that from 1999 to 2010, the number of deaths caused by opioid overdose has decreased by an average of 25%. This is after medical marijuana was approved in various jurisdictions in the United States. Barry is also a co-director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Mental Health and Addiction Policy Research.
The consensus seems to be pointing at marijuana being unjustly painted as the bad guy. And because of marijuana being falsely portrayed as a gateway drug, its value as a safer and more harmless drug becomes obscured by the threat of punishment and jail time. While more studies need to be done to ensure if indeed marijuana causes one to be addicted to more dangerous drugs, the facts we do know now show that we need to rethink our view of marijuana as a gateway drug.