Is Marijuana a ‘Gate-Way’ Drug?

Perhaps the most often used argument against the legalization of marijuana is that it  is a  drug that will lead users to use more serious drugs. Opponents of legalization refer to this phenomenon as the “Gate-Way Theory”, under which it is believed a person who has a pleasurable experience with a soft drug, namely marijuana, will want to experiment with harder drugs, such as cocaine, due to the reduced perceivable risk. In a 2010 study titled “Altered State? Assessing How Marijuana Legalization in California Could Influence Marijuana Consumption and Public Budgets,” researchers investigated the ‘Gate-Way Theory’ of marijuana use. The study tested the theory’s two interpretations of how marijuana might lead users to try other drugs — the first is that trying marijuana increases a user’s taste for other drugs or desensitizes their precautions about trying other drugs; and the second stresses the influence of peer groups and social interactions.

The conclusion of this study explains that “While early cannabis use is associated with increased risks of progression to other illicit drug use and drug abuse/dependence, it is not possible to draw strong causal conclusions solely on this basis.” They continue to explain that any correlation in survey responses that link marijuana use to an inclination to try harder drugs is more likely to be attributed to social pressures. The WHO project on Health Implications of Cannabis use back up this claim by stating “the social interaction with other drug using peers, and exposure to other drugs when purchasing cannabis on the black-market, increases the opportunity to use other illicit drugs,” and that the hypothesis that the effects of marijuana itself increases a tendency to experiments with harder drugs highly unlikely.

What members of the marijuana prohibition effort have failed to recognize, despite overwhelming evidence, is that soft drugs also include alcohol and tobacco. The correlation of alcohol and tobacco use and the use of  “harder” drugs is indisputable; studies report that majority of individuals first experiment with tobacco and alcohol before ever trying marijuana or any other drug (Drugscience.org). Therefore, if the overall goal of current drug legislation is to rid American society of gate-way drug related issues, why are tobacco and alcohol legal?

In addition to alcohol and tobacco being legal “gate-way” drugs, the criminalization itself has brought upon the use of harder drugs. Professor at Colombia University and author for the American Journal of Public Health, Denise Kadel notes that the criminalization itself also contributes to the “Gate-Way Theory” because it has “…caused some marijuana users to move on to other illicit substances through contact with the subculture of illicit users”. Many of the drug dealers are not only selling marijuana, but also other drugs,  facilitating the purchase of harder substances. If the government chose to repeal current marijuana legislation, it could stop the interaction with the dangerous subculture. While the “Gate-Way Theory” is considered valid by the scientific community, it cannot be used as a central reason to keep marijuana criminalized.

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