Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States, according to a study released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA, 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health). Four states have already legalized cannabis for recreational use, most notably Colorado in 2012. Entrepreneurs and celebrities have started to cash in on the marijuana industry, including Snoop Dog, who launched an online business called Merry Jane to promote regular marijuana use.
Despite its popularity, doctors, health organizations and politicians have warned that marijuana could be a gateway to harder drug use. However, no direct link between the two has been discovered, which is why most advocates for marijuana policy reform disagree. The possibility of national decriminalization has bolstered debate around the gateway drug theory, leaving consumers with concerns about the health risks and potential for addiction associated with marijuana use.
More than 20 states have legalized cannabis for medicinal and recreational use, and Missouri is not far behind. Show-Me Cannabis, an organization devoted to engaging Missourians in a discussion about cannabis use and policy reform, is a key player in the initiative to legalize marijuana in 2016. With over 19 million current users in the United States, according to SAMHSA, and increasing political support, marijuana could become the new alcohol. If the gateway drug theory is true, the legalization of marijuana could substantially increase the number of Americans struggling with drug addiction.
The Link to Addiction
Substance abuse has had a dramatic impact on American society. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported in 2013 that an estimated 24.6 million Americans over the age of 12 had used an illicit drug in the past month. Treatment options, particularly in rural areas, are lacking and many users end up in the criminal justice system. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), 43.3 percent of all drug-related arrests in the United States were for marijuana possession in 2011.
Marijuana use has also had a significant impact in the state of Missouri. According to a study, The Burden of Substance Abuse on the State of Missouri, prepared by the Missouri Division of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, marijuana is the second most common substance problem for those entering treatment. The study states that of the 29,389 drug cases processed by the Missouri Crime Laboratory in 2006, 38 percent involved marijuana.
These studies also point to marijuana as a gateway for those who have gone on to use harder drugs. NIDA states more than half of new illicit drug users begin with marijuana. Their findings from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health indicate that after alcohol, marijuana has the highest rate of dependence or abuse of all drugs.
One argument for the gateway drug theory cites cross sensitization, or vulnerability to addiction from repeat exposure to mind-altering substances, as a factor for increased drug use. NIDA references experiments in which rats were exposed to THC, the mind-altering chemical in marijuana, and showed heightened responses when subsequently given other drugs.
The criminalization of marijuana has also created an underground culture of drug use, which makes it far more likely that a marijuana user will move on to other drugs. John Payne, executive director of Show-Me Cannabis, stated that the biggest gateway from marijuana to harder drug use is its illegality.
“If there is any gateway here it’s the illegal market,” Payne said. “When a person is going to buy cannabis currently in an illegal system, they might also be encountering people who…introduce them to things like cocaine, things like heroine. If it were in a legal, regulated system, all that would be sold in a cannabis store would be cannabis.”
Lack of Causal Evidence
Although studies have indicated that marijuana can lead to harder drug use, none have definitively proved that marijuana is a gateway drug. Those who advocate for marijuana policy reform believe those studies leverage the correlation between marijuana and harder drug use without providing evidence that one causes the other.
“There’s no causal relationship between cannabis and using other substances,” Payne said. “It is true that if a person has used, say, cocaine, they’ve almost inevitably used cannabis at some point in their past. They’ve almost inevitably used alcohol or tobacco or caffeine at some point in their past. None of those things caused them to use cocaine in the future.” Payne also explained that marijuana users who move on to harder drugs are the exception, not the rule. “About 40 percent of the population has used cannabis at some point in their lives and about 19 million people use cannabis on a regular basis now, yet only about one percent of the population uses other illicit drugs - and that’s all of them combined - on any sort of regular basis. If there is a gateway there, there’s not a whole lot of people that are actually going through it.”
NIDA confirms that the majority of marijuana users do not move on to harder drugs. Despite these statistics, many Americans still fear the consequences of using marijuana. Payne believes the public perception of marijuana as a gateway drug is influenced by government policy and the correlation between those who use hard drugs and their history with marijuana.
“They think that that person is the common experience. Yes, that person probably used marijuana before he used heroin, but what they don’t realize is that for every one of those people there are dozens of people who have used cannabis and not gone on to use anything else. So, statistically speaking, that’s the anomaly - not the people who use cannabis and did not go on to use harder drugs."
Is The Risk Worth It?
Despite the growing concern that marijuana may be a gateway drug, it is an effective treatment for many medical conditions. Patients suffering from cancer, epilepsy, and multiple sclerosis have used marijuana to successfully treat their symptoms.
The medical, legal and social benefits of decriminalizing marijuana have sparked a national debate on U.S. drug policy and have led to the legalization of marijuana in 23 states. However, providing legal access to marijuana comes with its own set of consequences.
A study conducted by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area indicates that marijuana-related vehicle fatalities jumped from 37 to 78 percent in Colorado from 2007 to 2012. Along with increased exposure for children ages zero to five, there were higher rates of emergency room visits due to marijuana ingestion. The legalized access and sale of marijuana led to increases in crime, lab explosions and poisonings, according to the study.
The debate over the gateway drug theory — and the legalization of marijuana — is far from over. Americans are still weighing the potential benefits and risks of using marijuana, and deciding for themselves if the risks are worth it.