Cannabis Isn’t A Gateway Drug

If you believe anti-drug activists, weed is a ‘gateway drug’ – and one puff on a joint will probably lead to you injecting heroin a few months down the line. But a collection of charts on decades of drug use in the United States show that isn’t true.

The gateway hypothesis says marijuana inspires users to try other drugs: Once they get a taste of how fun pot is, they’re more likely to want to see how fun other drugs are. So if marijuana is more easily available through legalization, believers of the hypothesis say, it could push people to harder drugs. Gateway’ is a problematic word too, as marijuana use (incidentally, 114 times less deadly than alcohol) is not a tipping point but simply part of a process, analogous to progressing from a starter to a main.

The D.E.A. has removed a document from its website that claimed cannabis was a gateway drug. Thanks to a legal request by Americans for Safe Access which stated the DEA’s website contains 25 lies about marijuana, the DEA was forced to remove the “Dangers and Consequences of Marijuana” from its site.That report contained 23 of those 25 lies about marijuana; along with stating weed is a gateway drug, that false report states that weed causes psychosis and lung cancer, amongst other lies. Data from the US’s 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that 60% of cannabis users go on to try other drugs. That might seem to prove that yes, it is, except that 88% of drug users started with alcohol.

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Some research suggests that marijuana can act as a sort of anti-gateway. As the nation deals with an opioid epidemic, some opioid painkiller users are moving on to other opioids — heroin and fentanyl — to satisfy their addiction. But several studies have found that medical marijuana legalization can actually reduce opioid deaths, perhaps because patients can use pot to treat their chronic pain — without the risk of overdose and less of a risk for addiction — instead of highly addictive, deadly opioids. Similarly, marijuana legalization also may lead people to substitute their alcohol use with marijuana use. This could be hugely beneficial to public health and safety, since alcohol is a fairly dangerous drug linked to violent crimes, poisonings, and fatal accidents, while legal pot isn’t linked to violent crimes or poisonings and less likely to cause accidents.

Studies into the gateway hypothesis are lacking, but another crucial element is marijuana’s illegality. Make it illegal and people are more likely to try other illegal substances, make it legal and people are more likely to make a distinction between it and harder, more addictive drugs.The science points to weed being pretty harmless, but any dangers it does pose, ironically for its detractors, are only made worse by keeping it banned.

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It is important to note that other factors besides biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in a person’s risk for drug use. An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs. As The Atlantic put it: “Marijuana isn’t a ‘gateway’ to harder drugs in the same way that ordering an appetizer isn’t a ‘gateway’ to an entree: One comes before the other, but you’re eating both because you’re already at the restaurant.”

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