Cannabis & The Gateway Drug Narrative

Nicholas examines a common barrier which stifles the debate on marijuana reform. 

The discussion of cannabis legislation is shrouded in untruths and misconceptions on the effects the drug has when recreationally used.  One of these untruths is the theory that marijuana is a gateway drug that precedes harsher drug use.  This myth is used to facilitate a certain discourse on marijuana use, where a false narrative is created regarding the effects of recreational use, influencing further fear-mongering on the issue.  This is, of course, the gateway myth. A belief that recreational marijuana use triggers an urge to experiment with harder and more stimulating drugs.  While this quarrel is virtually exclusive to political debates, it is in politics where the discussion of decriminalisation and legalisation of cannabis is brought to a halt, as this myth continues to breed ignorance on the subject.

In the United States, marijuana reform has swept the nation.  Many states have medical dispensaries where medical card owners can acquire cannabis to alleviate certain conditions and disorders.  In the wake of this came many benefits, some of which were the effects it had on crime rates and the taxation of the drug, where each state flourished from the massive spike in taxes.1 

The myth struggled to create a divide in these states and it proved its detriment as it became apparent the argument only held validity as long as marijuana was illegal.  That is the only area where the myth holds weight, the area of legality.  Because the only way to acquire it is through the black market, the core root of the myth emerges. 

Drug dealing in Ireland is a multi-billion-euro enterprise that sees all its revenue untaxed and secured in the depths of Ireland’s criminal underbelly, with the cannabis market in 2019 pulling revenue of 11.6bn across the E.U.3 Most if not all dealers specialise in an array of drugs of various classes, as a means of maximising potential revenue by offering the buyer more choice. 

It is here where the gateway myth finds its footing.  While many adolescents begin experimenting with softer drugs, it is the source of their newfound experimentation that services as the gateway towards more illicit substances.  The source is an enterprise which only factors their profit margins and the only way to secure more revenue is by offering everything available.  It may begin with a free sample when purchasing their usual amount of cannabis, at which point the link has been made and the gates threaten to open.

What was originally a source of marijuana has now become a Pandora’s box of options, ranging from Valium, to cocaine, to heroin.  The harder the drug, the harder the sentence and with that comes a more strenuous culture surrounding Class A and B drugs.  To maximise the yield and provide the dealer with more quantities to sell, many of these substances are “cut” with dangerous chemicals you can find in under the sink products.4

In the black market, there is very little room for concern in terms of the effects that these cutting agents will have on the buyer.  All that matters to the dealer is making a sale and if that means selling heavily tainted substances, then the transaction will be made. 

Quoted in the Edmonton Sun, December 12th, 2002, Pierre Claude Nolin [Senator and Chairman of the Special Senate Committee on Illegal Drugs in Canada] said:

“It [marijuana] is not a gateway drug. There is nothing in the substance that leads to other drugs.  The gateway is not the substance. It’s the black market.” 5

Recreational marijuana use, which can tumble into experimentation with illicit drugs, is not the result of tolerance building or a particular interest in something stronger.  It is an example of how people are products of their environment. The current legal state of marijuana puts smokers in situations where risky choices are available and they are encouraged to be explored.  Choices which can prove hazardous to the wellbeing of those involved.  Choices made readily available because of the criminalisation of marijuana, among other factors.

Experiences of marijuana users from across the country attest to this, as well as research into the drug itself.  Studies have yet to claim this myth as fact. On the contrary, studies have disproven the link between marijuana and wider drug use.  There is a growing body of research showing that medicinal marijuana use has served as a substitute for alternative substances, such as tobacco and alcohol, two addictive drugs which are commonly abused across society.7

CBD oil alone has been medically proven to help with conditions such as epilepsy, autism, and arthritis.  In cases where medicinal marijuana was legalised, the usage of often heavily-abused prescription medications, such as opioids, was reduced significantly.8  In a press release discussing his study published in the U.K. Journal of Addiction, (December 2nd, 2002) researcher Andrew Morral, Ph.D said:

“We’ve shown that the marijuana gateway effect is not the best explanation for the link between marijuana use and the use of harder drugs.  An alternative, simpler and more compelling explanation accounts for the pattern of drug use you see in this country, without resorting to any gateway effects. While the gateway theory has enjoyed popular acceptance, scientists have always had their doubts. Our study shows that these doubts are justified.” 9

An individual’s environmental circumstances have been identified as one of the root causes of illicit substance abuse, further dismissing the belief that marijuana use precedes this behaviour.10  A 2012 study on the common liability to addiction and the gateway hypothesis found that 83.2% of recreational substance users in Japan, a country where cannabis isn’t generally accessible,  had not used marijuana first:

“It’s also important to remember that there are many factors that can lead to someone forming a substance use disorder, including personal, social, genetic, and environmental factors.” 11

As more comprehensive research is carried out on the effects of cannabis legislation and the drug itself, we find ourselves etching towards a society more open to the idea of decriminalisation and taxation. 

These misconceptions are not spread across all generations though, as over 65s are more likely to support keeping marijuana illegal.12

As younger generations push social issues forward  in politics, perhaps one day we could hope for a rational and cohesive dialogue on the legalisation of cannabis.  Until then, information disputing these presumptions can help older generations to view the debate from a more knowledgeable perspective.  A key fear many older generations have is of legalisation empowering illegal market activity. Despite this fear, American states such as Colorado which regulate medical and recreational cannabis have made strides in decreasing the size of the illegal market, with 70% of total sales being confined to their legal markets.13  Marijuana’s current legal state leaves Irish consumers seeking out the black market, as attitudes toward cannabis continue to curtail prohibition, and demand refuses to be eliminated.

References: 1 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07418825.2019.1666903

2 https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/video/onbackground/the-tax-benefits-of-legal-marijuana/2013/11/05/ab3a7868-464a-11e3-bf0c-cebf37c6f484_video.html

3 https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-30966841.html

4 http://www.drugs.ie/news/article/Irish_cocaine_cut_with_deadly_toxins

5 https://medicalmarijuana.procon.org/questions/is-marijuana-a-gateway-or-stepping-stone-drug/

6 https://americanaddictioncenters.org/the-real-gateway-drug

7 https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Comparative-Epidemiology-of-Dependence-on-Tobacco-%2C-Anthony-Warner/aa41b0bd3b697be62f7eeca4d93d41c7b70544ef?p2df

8 https://reason.org/wp-content/uploads/does-legalizing-marijuana-reduce-crime.pdf

9 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12472629/

10 https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/ajp.2006.163.12.2134

11 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3600369/

12 https://www.iwf.org/2019/03/11/millennials-overwhelmingly-favor-legalizing-weed-while-baby-boomers-just-say-no/

13 https://www.economist.com/briefing/2016/02/13/reeferegulatory-challenge

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