Washington, DC: Marijuana experimentation by adolescents does not lead to the use of harder drugs, according to the findings of a RAND study released Monday. The study dismisses the so-called "gateway theory," and raises doubts regarding the legitimacy of federal drug policies based upon its premise.
"While the gateway theory has enjoyed popular acceptance, scientists have always had their doubts," said lead researcher Andrew Morral, associate director of RAND's Public Safety and Justice unit. "Our study shows that these doubts are justified."
After analyzing data from the U.S. National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (which measures patters and frequency of self-reported drug use among Americans), researchers concluded that teenagers who tried hard drugs were predisposed to do so whether or not they tried marijuana.
"The people who are predisposed to use drugs and have the opportunity to use drugs are more likely than others to use both marijuana and harder drugs," Morral said. "Marijuana typically comes first because it is more available. Once we incorporated these facts into our mathematical model of adolescent drug use, we could explain all of the drug use associations that have been cited as evidence of marijuana's gateway effect."
Morral said that the study raises serious questions about the legitimacy of basing national drug policy decisions on the false assumption that pot is a gateway drug. "For example, it suggests that policies aimed at reducing or eliminating marijuana availability are unlikely to make any dent in the hard drug problem," he said.
NORML Foundation Executive Director Allen St. Pierre praised the study's findings, noting that population estimates on drug use have consistently shown that most people who try marijuana never graduate to harder drugs. "Statistically, for every 104 Americans who have tried marijuana, there is only one regular user of cocaine, and less than one user of heroin," St. Pierre said. "For the overwhelming majority of marijuana smokers, pot is clearly a 'terminus' rather than a gateway."
St. Pierre further speculated that among the minority of marijuana smokers who do graduate to harder substances, it's pot prohibition rather than the use of marijuana itself that often serves as a doorway to the world of hard drugs. "The more users become integrated in an environment where, apart from cannabis, hard drugs can also be obtained, the greater the chances they will experiment with harder drugs," he said.
Previous studies criticizing the gateway theory include a Canadian Senate report released this past fall, and a 1999 report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine. The latter study concluded that marijuana was not a "gateway drug to the extent that it is a cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse." It noted that the "most consistent predictors of serious drug abuse appear to be intensity of marijuana use and co-occurring psychiatric disorders or a family history of psychopathology, including alcoholism."
For more information, please contact either Allen St. Pierre or Paul Armentano of The NORML Foundation at (202) 483-8751. Results of the RAND study appear in the December edition of the British Journal Addiction.