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.

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A Myth In Deconstruction: Is Cannabis bad for your health?

In a world that is progressively concerned with science and prevention of diseases and other illnesses, the role of drugs has become ever more crucial. What is interesting, however, are the ‘facts’ that become pertinent to popular belief; glorified myths, if you will, of certain drugs and their effect both on the physical and mental health of the human being. Many of us are happy, when not feeling the best, to go to the doctor and get a prescription of a pill even your GP can’t pronounce the name of and guzzle 2 down with a Mountain Dew, often oblivious to the laundry list of side effects printed in size 6 font on the back of the box. Doctors orders, right? Trust in the doctor is essential here, and that’s perfectly fine. But what about illegal drugs? There are some studies for them, but their illicit nature proves a hurdle in keeping these constant, so what remains is myths and heresay as to the effects of the drug and its impact on health.

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Doctors hold the key to changing opinions on the health risk of cannabis. Source: free photo on openphoto.net

Cannabis is one of these drugs, and has more myths tied to it arguably than any other given it is        often the most widely used illegal drug in any given country (A 2007 study showed 10% of the       Australian population had smoked cannabis in the past year). Many people I have spoken to hold  the belief that cannabis has been scientifically proven to be bad for your health, is addictive or is a  lot stronger today and therefore more harmful. For those so inclined to believe such propaganda  that was put forth by the US Government in the 1960’s and 70’s and has unfortunately stuck, this  article is a short read and a great start for you. For those of you who want something a little more  recent, the internet was flooded yesterday with articles relating to a new study regarding cannabis  use that thankfully, just gives us the facts.

The study, which was a combination of efforts by the Boston University School of Medicine and  researchers at the Boston Medical Center, honed in on 589 adults who were positively identified as  having used recreational drugs in routine checkups. The research found that 84% had used  marijuana recently, 58% of which used marijuana and no other drugs. It was ideal to know other  drugs in the mix here, as researchers did not want to blame health effects on one specific drug if it  had been take in conjunction with others. What was found, however, says head author Daniel  Fuster, MD, is that “our findings suggest that marijuana use has little measurable effect on self- reported health or healthcare utilization”. This also documented the frequency of use, which did  not change the facts presented.

Such evidence produced here is positive and a step in the direction of raising awareness around the issue of cannabis as an illegal drug. The fact that alcohol and cigarettes remain legal despite the constant reporting of their detrimental effects to health and well-being means that more research needs to be done to consolidate the case and change popular opinion around the drug. For recreational users, this is something solid to go off, though it would be interesting to see a study where cannabis users are compared against those that abstain from any recreational drugs.