Skip to comments.Does marijuana lead to hardcore drugs?
Posted on 05/16/2003 10:40:57 AM PDT by Stew Padasso
Does marijuana lead to hardcore drugs?
by Will Siss Snitch Contributing Writer March 20, 2003
It's been the U.S. drug enforcement strategy for decades: Stop marijuana use and you slow addiction to hard drugs.
Marijuana, the government says, leads users to try drugs that kill, such as cocaine and heroin. Drug warriors say it's a simple jump: Surveys show users of cocaine or heroin almost invariably begin by smoking pot.
But what has become known as the "gateway theory" of marijuana has no shortage of critics. To them, the theory is at best a hypothesis, at worst it's a lie.
They include University of Kentucky sociology professor Richard Clayton and Dan Seum Jr. (son of the state senator), who heads the new Louisville chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). They say the gateway theory is based more in government-run "Reefer Madness" than hard science.
Studies in contrast Two recent studies have re-ignited the gateway debate. One done on Australian twins found that early marijuana smokers were up to five times more likely to later use harder drugs than the twin who didn't smoke pot. Researchers worked with 311 sets of same-sex twins, including 136 sets of identical twins, in which just one twin had smoked marijuana before age 17. The early marijuana smokers, the researchers found, were about twice as likely to use opiates like heroin, and five times as likely to use hallucinogens. About 46 percent of the early marijuana users reported that they later abused or became dependent on marijuana, and 43 percent had become dependent on alcohol.
The study, however, did not say how marijuana, or cannabis, might lead to harder drugs. "It is often implicitly assumed that using cannabis changes your brain or makes you crave other drugs," said lead researcher Michael Lynskey, but he insisted that's not the only reason one might use hard drugs.
"There are a number of other potential mechanisms, including access to drugs, willingness to break the law and likelihood of engaging in risk-taking behavior," said Lynskey.
Another study, conducted by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center, suggested that data typically used to support the gateway theory could be re-evaluated. The influences of genetics and peer pressure to snort cocaine or smoke crack are at least as strong as that first joint. Opportunities to smoke marijuana may simply come earlier in life than the opportunity to use hard drugs.
RAND researchers looked at drug-use patterns reported by more than 58,000 U.S. residents between the ages of 12 and 25 who participated in the National Household Surveys on Drug Abuse, conducted between 1982 and 1994. They saw all the facts that point to the gateway theory: Marijuana users were much more likely than non-users to progress to hard drugs; almost all who had used marijuana and hard drugs used marijuana first; and the greater the frequency of marijuana use, the greater the likelihood of using hard drugs later.
The researchers concluded, "It is not marijuana use, but individuals' opportunities and unique propensities to use drugs that determine their risk of initiating hard drugs." They said the study did nothing to suggest the gateway theory is the only path to hard drugs. The researchers said it's just one of many possibilities.
Alternative perceptions "The gateway issue has been hotly debated for four decades, and there have been dozens of studies," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. "The nature of these drug studies is that they'll never make a conclusion. There will never be a definitive study on the gateway drug, and no one will say, No, I don't need another dollar for research.'"
St. Pierre argued that the gateway theory is a government-sponsored myth, perpetuated by Partnership for a Drug-Free America television commercials and federally sponsored Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) programs in fifth-grade classrooms.
"The propaganda and misinformation about marijuana is rampant: If you smoke marijuana, you'll get pregnant, you'll blow your friend's head off, you support terrorism,'" he said. "If those claims aren't credible, when you tell a child not to take methamphetamine, it loses all credibility."
There are no morphological changes in the brain that entice people and change brain chemistry so that they want hard drugs, St. Pierre said. "It's only because marijuana and heroin are sold in the same distribution channels illegally trafficked that they are related. And it's about risk-taking behavior."
If anyone knows about risk-taking behavior, it's the project coordinator for the new Louisville NORML office, Dan Seum Jr. The 44-year-old son of Dan Seum Sr., of Fairdale, Republican state senator from District 38, said he spent time in jail for selling marijuana, but not before dabbling in hard drugs, which he said he's given up.
"I've seen some good people be punished for" possessing marijuana, Seum said. "I know an 18-year-old who was raped in jail, where he was put after he was arrested for trafficking. I've been in the streets and I know what's worse."
According to the state's Department of Corrections, the number of drug offenders committed to Kentucky's prisons has increased 11.8 percent from 3,166 to 3,539 between 1999 and 2002, and nearly tripled from 1992 to 2002. The 3,539 residents incarcerated for drug offenses in 2002 made up 23 percent of Kentucky's total prison population. Only violent offenders, at 39 percent, made up a larger portion.
Seum said he places no faith in a gateway theory, since the cravings for hard drugs and marijuana are so different. "You don't graduate from one to another," he said. "I think there are a lot of underlying circumstances to hard drug use. Broken hearts, broken families, broken egos. Drug use is a symptom of something deeper."
The front line of the drug war Before a Kentucky child faces the decision to smoke that first joint, he probably sits in a classroom and listens to an "Officer DARE." One such officer is Lt. John Branscum, vice president of the Kentucky DARE Association and member of the Nicholasville Police Department.
"When you talk about the first drug that kids use, it's usually tobacco," he said. "Then they'll try alcohol and marijuana. Any step of the way that you can stop a child from taking drugs is good. The drug war is the longest war we've fought on American soil, and we're just touching the tip of it."
The DARE organization, which started in Los Angeles in 1983 and branched into Kentucky starting in Lexington in 1986, is careful not to make any statements about marijuana that it can't back up scientifically. In its "Parents' Guide Book," DARE writes that gateway drugs "are those drugs people are first exposed to and experiment with. Traditional gateway drugs are alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. The significance of gateway drugs is that most people with a drug dependency began their cycle of addiction by experimenting with a gateway drug. While not everyone who tries alcohol, cigarettes, or marijuana becomes addicted to drugs, most addicts began their habits with one of these drugs."
Branscum said the term "gateway drug" is inaccurate. He also stressed that while alcohol is a more immediate danger to children, any use of marijuana is abuse. "We want to stop marijuana use at all costs," he said.
Thanks to a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the DARE program will expand from fifth grade to include area middle schools, a step that Branscum applauds. "The grant gives us the boost we need. Fifth graders were being educated on how to avoid temptation when they became teen-agers, but we weren't able to be with them as they got older."
Professor sees it differently UK professor Richard Clayton argues that for all its effort, DARE has not reduced drug use for kids. "I think it operates on a flawed theory," Clayton said. "It makes adults feel really great. Parents see that there's a policeman in the school and they think that their kids won't act up." Clayton co-wrote a study that found DARE had almost no impact on teen-age drug use.
As far as the gateway theory goes, Clayton is equally skeptical. "It's hard to find anything more strongly correlated with cocaine than marijuana," he said. "But you're talking about probability, not causality."
Clayton said the gateway theory is more likely a gateway "hypothesis."
"We accept that smoking causes cancer, for example," Clayton said. "You need to show that what is caused is statistically correlated with the effect, meaning if this is higher, than this is higher."
Clayton said that framing this argument for quitting cigarettes has proven to be effective because smokers have stopped smoking. The argument that marijuana causes users to try cocaine cannot be proven, he said, and is ultimately an approach that can't be validated.
As a scientist, Clayton said he could not condone legalizing marijuana because of the physical damage it causes in users, particularly after extended use. But, he said, dependency on any drug, be it pot or cocaine, stems from a person's behavior.
"Getting people to not use marijuana in the first place makes sense," he conceded. "So we should be asking what is the better predictor of marijuana use, and it's often a conduct disorder. The U.S. could consider funding a study of conduct disorder. There are no easy answers."
Only for the lucky ones! In all seriousness, I think it's a matter of correlation more than causation. You can probably assert that over 90% of hard drug users have used marijuana, but the percentage of marijuana users who move to hard drugs is nowhere near that high.
The bottom line is that marijuana is much more accessible, so someone with an inclination to heroin may start with marijuana for reasons of availability and cost, while the casual pothead starts and ends with marijuana because that's what they like.
I would think that most Ferrari drivers started out with something slower and less expensive. Does that mean that the Geo Metro is a gateway car to Ferrari?
According to many Freepers, marijuana is a hard drug.
Nope, but since almost all murderers own a gun, that logic has been accepted as gospel.
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