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Debunking Theory that Marijuana is "Gateway Drug"


By "Radical" Russ Belville

There is a great editorial in a Southern Oregon newspaper today called “Legalize pot: It’ll dry up drug cartels’ market, save forests“.  It’s well done and deserves a read, but today my muse comes in the form of a comment on the piece.  My reply was far too long for comments, so I’m putting it up here.  The first paragraph references a jibe the editorialist makes at the conservative sheriff’s alarm at the waste and pollution from a clandestine marijuana grow on forest lands (“It was the first time in memory a Republican has fretted so about the environment.”)

This article will no doubt spawn endless atta-boys from the medicinal (i.e. recreational) marijuana crowd. However, a few comments are due. First, Varble, your characterization of conservatives a not caring about the environment is so cliche, and wrong. It is easy to care about the environment, and seek balance with human use, unlike the screaming greenies who want man extinguished from the earth. Most all of my conservative friends support reasonable protections of the environment.

Second, there is obviously a conflict between our treatment of alcohol and marijuana. Both are harmful drugs, which do not benefit the user (I will allow a small argument for medicinal use but only for about 10% of the alleged medicinal users). Both drugs cause a great cost to our society. Both drugs are outlawed in some places in our country (i.e. dry counties, native restrictions in Alaska, etc for alcohol, and most everywhere for pot). Legalizing alcohol stopped the unlawful production and distribution, but only enhanced (through availability) the social damage, i.e. highway deaths, alcoholism, family abuse, and the list goes on. Same effects from abuse of marijuana, but it too often leads to harder drug use and the search for the illusive high for those people who can’t find it in their lives to make their own happiness without chemical assistance.

An excuse to legalize marijuana-tough question. We already see in the generations since the proliferation of pot an attitude of lassitude toward education, achievement, and aggressive pursuit of the American dream. Do we really want to keep creating these legal fictions of acceptability? What next when these are both legal and common, then the argument goes to the next step, how about Vicodin or Oxycontin without prescriptions, they don’t hurt anyone.

Saying “alcohol and marijuana…. both are harmful drugs” is akin to saying “.357 Magnums and pea-shooters…. both are harmful weapons”. So many times I read conservatives call out about this “great cost to our society” borne from the hippie hordes puffing doobies, yet never a dollar figure or a study to back it up. And nary a realization that whatever that cost is, we’re offsetting it by ZERO dollars in tax revenues and compounding it by spending billions in a failed effort to eradicate it.

Regardless what that cost may be (sure, it is a non-zero number; nothing recreational is “harmless” to society – how much arable land and precious water does a golf course consume?) the cost is tiny compared to the cost of alcohol and tobacco on society, which, unsurprisingly, conservatives are never calling out to prohibit and interdict and incarcerate like they do pot. Sure, legal access to alcohol leads to “highway deaths, alcoholism, family abuse…” because *IT IS ALCOHOL*, not cannabis, and yet you know (if you read history) that its prohibition led to far worse societal outcomes.

Meanwhile, the drug that leads people to being peaceful, compassionate, cooperative, loving, artistic, sharing, and hungry (in both the physiological and the abstract sense), the one that is literally incapable of causing toxic overdose, the one that even you admit is medicinal for some of its users, the one that coincidentally produces the most digestible protein in the plant kingdom and a superior carbon-*NEGATIVE* building material / clothing material / plastic / fuel oil… that’s the one we need to put people in a cage for using. The tobacco addicts, we’ll build them little shelters outside of work to get their fix. The alcohol addicts, we’ll celebrate them in advertisements, sitcoms, and movies. We’re actually pretty accommodating of people “who can’t find it in their lives to make their own happiness without chemical assistance.” But the potheads – people about whom your worst unfounded stereotypes are “attitude of lassitude toward education”, “the search for the illusive high”, and people who might eventually do some other drug that really is dangerous and harmful – they need to be arrested and imprisoned.

The fact is that there are 100 million adults age 18+ who’ve tried cannabis, 26 million using it annually, and 15.8 million using cannabis monthly. There are only 350,000 adults age 18+ using heroin monthly. Not only has the so-called “gateway theory” been debunked by every study to review it (including the US gov’t Institute of Medicine), but it is based on the fallacy of correlation = causation. “Ask any heroin addict, and they’ll tell you the first illegal drug they did was marijuana!” OK, what’s similar between marijuana and heroin? “Illegal”. Ask them what *drug* they took first and it was usually alcohol. But nobody calls Coors Light a “gateway drug” because you don’t buy it in the same market as the heroin, cocaine, and meth – the illegal market. (BTW, I will correct the author of the piece on one error: meth is a Schedule II drug, not Schedule I like cannabis and heroin. Meth – and cocaine – are recognized by our government as having medical value.)

Finally, this silly slippery slope “the next step, how about Vicodin or Oxycontin without prescriptions, they don’t hurt anyone” fails on three levels. One, Vicodin and Oxycontin are already more legal than medical marijuana and, based on gov’t figures, a bigger drug abuse problem (Google: Florida pill mills). Two, the opiate pharmaceuticals are toxic and addictive, unlike cannabis, which has been shown to work synergistically with opiate pain relievers to produce greater pain relief with less Oxycontin and Vicodin needed by the pain patient. And three, the idea that “well, if we legalize pot, then why not coke, why not heroin, etc.” is stupid because you’d have to have public support to do that. 50% of the public supports legalizing pot. Legalization of other drugs stands at only 10% support for ecstasy, 9% for cocaine, 8% for heroin, and 7% each for crack and meth. So unless legalizing pot means at least 50%+1 of all registered voters go out and smoke it and it’s such a Super-Potent Not Your Father’s Woodstock Weed Bubonic Skunk Chronic that one puff makes all of them suddenly want to see legalized heroin, it’s just a stupid argument.

The simple truth is this: Some people don’t like the kind of people they think smoke weed. Call ‘em “hippies”, “liberals”, “libertarians”, “thugs”, “gangstas”, “dopers”, “losers”, “druggies”, “hedonists”, whatever way your prejudice copes with the fear of the mostly young, mostly minority, mostly working class people we surveil, harass, intimidate, screen, terminate, evict, terrorize, arrest, and imprison… all under the justification of making sure Phillip-Morris, MillerCoors, Pfizer, Starbucks, Sarah Lee, and Frito-Lay all have a “drug-free” workforce. Marijuana’s illegality ensures that only the fringiest pot smokers remain visible, thus making continued demonization of them easier, since the moms and dads and teachers and firemen and rocket scientists and gold medal athletes can’t speak up for it without losing their kids, their jobs, and their Kellogg’s cereal endorsement deals.

The facts are these: Cannabis consumers are every bit as liberal or conservative, religious or atheist, rich or poor, minority or white, industrious or lazy, intelligent or stupid, dirty or clean, fat or fit, crazed or rational as beer drinkers, wine drinkers, cigarette smokers, cigar smokers, teetotalers, and full-blown drug addicts. But prohibition of cannabis colors the perception of its users toward the more negative (to the perceiver, in this case, the commenter above). (And, actually, cannabis consumers are more white, more fit, more intelligent, and richer than beer drinkers…) The most profound affect legalizing marijuana would have is the shock its opponents would have at finding out how many of their friends, family, and colleagues smoke pot, and have been for a while.


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