Isn’t marijuana a gateway drug? Doesn’t it lead to use of harder drugs?

This is totally untrue. In fact, researchers are looking into using marijuana to help crack addicts to quit. There are 40 million people in this country (U.S.) who have smoked marijuana for a period of their lives — why aren’t there tens of millions of heroin users, then? In Amsterdam, both marijuana use and heroin use went down after marijuana was decriminalized — even though there was a short rise in cannabis use right after decriminalization. Unlike addictive drugs, marijuana causes almost no tolerance. Some people even report a reverse tolerance. That is, the longer they have used the less marijuana they need to get `high.’ So users of marijuana do not usually get bored and look for something more powerful. If anything, marijuana keeps people from doing harder drugs.

The idea that using marijuana will lead you to use heroin or speed is called the gateway theory or the stepping stone hypothesis. It has been a favorite trick of the anti-drug propaganda artists, because it casts marijuana as something insidious with hidden dangers and pitfalls. There have never been any real statistics to back this idea up, but somehow it was the single biggest thing which the newspapers yelled about during Reefer Madness II. (Perhaps this was because the CIA was looking for someone to blame for the increase in heroin use after Viet Nam.)

The gateway theory of drug use is no longer generally accepted by the medical community. Prohibitionists used to point at numbers which showed that a large percentage of the hard drug users started with marijuana. They had it backwards — many hard drug users also use marijuana. There are two reasons for this. One is that marijuana can be used to take the edge off the effects of some hard drugs. The other is a recently discovered fact of adolescent psychology — there is a personality type which uses drugs, basically because drugs are exciting and dangerous, a thrill.

On sociological grounds, another sort of gateway theory has been argued which claims that marijuana is the source of the drug subculture and leads to other drugs through that culture. By the same token this is untrue — marijuana does not create the drug subculture, the drug subculture uses marijuana. There are many marijuana users who are not a part of the subculture.

This brings up another example of how marijuana legalization could actually reduce the use of illicit drugs. Even though there is no magical stepping stone effect, people who choose to buy marijuana often buy from dealers who deal in many different illegal drugs. This means that they have access to illegal drugs, and might decide to try them out. In this case it is the laws which lead to hard drug use. If marijuana were legal, the drug markets would be separated, and less people would start using the illegal drugs. Maybe this is why emergency room admissions for hard drugs have gone down in the states that decriminalized marijuana during the 70’s.

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