Mythical Paths: Marijuana & The Gateway Theory

Although many myths surrounding marijuana have come to pass over time, one that has stuck and still tends to rear its ugly head in arguments against the drugs legalisation is the gateway theory. I have a distinct memory of high-school drug education is PE class; a flow chart diagram of marijuana being the first in a chain of drugs that included MDMA, methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin/opiates.  The ‘theory’ (strangely enough, presented as fact), as explained by my teacher, clings to the notion that people who smoke cannabis will naturally be drawn to try the next, stronger high. Whether it be through a build up of tolerance or simple curiosity, marijuana is the catalyst to dangerous paths of addiction, given it is the first taste for many of a euphoric high. While there is a slew of things wrong with such a theory, I’d like to focus on a few in light of a recent blog post that critiques it, posted by the solid folks over at The Weed Blog.

Photo: Kill Your Darlings Journal

The article, written by Russ Belville, firstly argues that one of the main problems with the gateway theory is that works on principles of ‘selection bias’. Police enforcing the drug laws and health professionals who work with addicts are seeing worst-case scenarios on a daily basis; dependent drug users who if asked, will generally say the first ‘drug’ they tried was marijuana. In their eyes, these people often represent the drug-using community at large – a harsh generalisation any way you look at it. Gateway theory enthusiasts here would argue cannabis was the spark that started it all; an obvious cause of their spiral into addiction. The problem with this? Attributing a complex, often psychological, issue to one particular drug is flimsy at best, especially when alcohol and tobacco, legal and without stigma, are generally the first drugs (though often not thought of as drugs) tried by any given individual. A study of marijuana conducted by the Institute of Medicine consolidated this idea back in 1999, stating “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs… In fact, most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana, usually before they are of legal age.”

And what about straight facts and statistics? If marijuana smokers are doomed to be driven as far as the high will take them, the numbers just don’t seem to add up. Belville uses US statistics in his article, but its also interesting to take a look at our own. Take heroin, for example – mostly seen as ‘the end of the line’, highest-of-highs, whatever phrase takes your fancy. 35.4 percent of Australians over 14 have tried cannabis in their lifetime, with 7.7 consuming it in the past 12 months.  As for heroin, only 1.4 percent of Aussies over 14 have tried it, 0.2% within the last 12 months. Such facts suggests that even if marijuana was the turning point, a baseless claim to begin with, it is a tiny percentage it effects, as many don’t even smoke marijuana again. Sure, this has been selective and reductionist in nature, but doesn’t that begin to show the flawed of theory in general? Yeah! Science!

Taking off from Beville’s post, I’d also  like to add a thought of my own here, as although I do not see any way to prove a gateway theory for any drug, I’m here to discuss it for arguments sake. Could not the gateway theory for marijuana not lie in how the public is educated out about the drug? We are told its bad whichever way you look at it, thrown some myths, and to avoid it and other drugs at all costs. However, when trying it, many realize its not so bad after all.  No vomiting, no hangover the next morning, no violent feelings and no urge to commit stupid acts or dial up the ex. Google is pulled up, some research starts to be done. We’ve been lied to this whole time? So what else are they lying about? Illegality suggests danger (yet ‘legal’ harmful synthetic substances are available currently) and this is where the problem starts to surface, also given that marijuana is sold only through a blackmarket, often in conjunction with other illegal, harder drugs.

What are your thoughts on the gateway theory? If you have any thoughts or experiences to share, please comment below.