Exclusive: Burning the stigma of cannabis as “the gateway drug”

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Early last week, over 40 Governors descended on Washington DC to attend the 110th National Governor’s Association meeting. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in attendance and where he is typically vocal and aggressive with his opinions on marijuana, he was reportedly dismissive toward governors wanting to speak with him about state and federal laws on medical and recreational cannabis.

In addition to recently revoking the Obama-era federal protection for state-legal cannabis, Sessions is known for his dated opinions on the plant. He recently stated that “good people don’t smoke marijuana” and attributes the opioid crisis and harder drug use to cannabis stating “much of the addiction starts with marijuana,” paraphrasing the ever-misinformed “gateway” theory –  a notion that marijuana use inevitably leads to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin.

In October of 2010, TIME published a story titled “Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: The Myth That Will Not Die” and while public opinions worldwide have shifted swiftly in favor of the plant since this was published, people like Jeff Sessions prove the myth is still alive and well.

The term “gateway drug” was popularized during Reagan’s renewed war on drugs, by former Whitehouse drug czar and director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Robert L. DuPont in his 1984 book “Getting Tough on Gateway Drugs: A Guide for the Family”. It stems from his broader observation that if young people did not use alcohol or tobacco, they would be less likely to use other drugs, such as marijuana.

However, alcohol and tobacco are rarely associated with leading to harder drug use.

Even a 1999 report commissioned by Congress to highlight the potential dangers of medical marijuana stated that “most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana – usually before they are of legal age.”

Given the fact that many addicts begin their testimonials by saying their drug use started with pot, it’s convenient to confuse correlation with causation.

The “gateway” theory relies on correlation equaling causation but this is easily debunked given that marijuana is the most widely used illicit substance in the world. We should expect to see far more people using harder drugs if the theory held up.

Take caffeine, the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive substance. We could assume that 100 percent of heroin users have at some point consumed caffeine, but certainly not every coffee addict is interested in anything harder than the occasional shot of espresso. So why does marijuana maintain this “gateway” status?

It’s likely Marijuana’s illicit status that separates it from alcohol and tobacco, as well as its Schedule 1 classification, categorized as a drug having a high potential for abuse with no accepted medical treatment – a conclusion that has been rejected by 29 states and the District of Columbia, and by the research being done to prove otherwise.

In reference to the opioid crisis, Sessions has recently stated, “I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana – so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful,” a blatant disregard toward the research and testimonials that have proven marijuana’s medical use in all forms.

Studies from as early as 2008 showed that chronic-pain sufferers could reduce their prescription opioid doses by taking marijuana and that even a combination of marijuana and prescription opioids is not likely to lead to abusing other drugs or even alcohol.

More recently, a study has shown that opioid overdoses in Colorado have fallen by six percent since the State legalized recreational marijuana, despite overdoses having steadily increased in the 14 years prior.

As for marijuana itself, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) states that changes in marijuana laws have not been found to have a significant impact on rates of adult use, and possibly more important are the recent reports that have found that use among teenagers has actually decreased in states that have legalized medical marijuana.

“Experts say this is due to a diminished ‘forbidden fruit’ effect and decreased access to marijuana as it moves from the unregulated streets – where there are no age requirements – to inside licensed dispensaries, where you need to be 21 to purchase marijuana,” according to the DPA.

It’s interesting to note as well that the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (D.A.R.E.), infamously known for its hyperbolic, fear-mongering tactics to convince adolescents about the dangers of drug use, has recently take marijuana off of their “gateway drug” list, likely due in some part to their difficulty in staying relevant as more states create realistic and sensible laws for cannabis use.

The reality is that some people are more likely than others to try drugs, and according to the DPA, people who are willing to try harder drugs are more likely to have used multiple drugs in their lifetime. The majority of users who use cannabis safely and to ease discomfort should be able to do so.

A Pew Research Centre poll conducted this past October found that 61 percent of Americans support legalization, up from 57 percent in 2016. More troubling for Sessions is that it has also been recently determined by Gallup polling that a majority of Republicans support legalization, the first time ever. We’ll have to see in another eight years if the “gateway” theory is still making headlines.

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