The “gateway” theory is still hanging around after all these years.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, in one of his many ill-informed public statements, recently proclaimed that were he elected president in 2016, he would “crack down and not permit” states to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes, calling tax revenue from marijuana “blood money”. Christie added “Marijuana is an illegal drug under federal law. And the states should not be permitted to sell it and profit from it.” Fortunately I do not anticipate we will have to endure a Christie presidency, but it was fascinating to see he had resurrected an old anti-marijuana myth that most of us had thought was dead.
In taking this anti-pot position, Christie gave as his justification the so-called “gateway” theory. “Every bit of objective data tells us that it’s a gateway drug to other drugs. And it is not an excuse in our society to say alcohol is legal so why not make marijuana legal. …Well … why not make heroin legal? Why not make cocaine legal. You know, their argument is a slippery slope.”
This man is not burdened by facts, nor by intellectual rigor. He has clearly looked around for some justification for him to oppose legalization, to appeal to the far right wing of the Republican party, and the best he could find was the old, previously discarded “gateway” theory. In addition, Governor Christie makes no distinction between the dangers of smoking pot, versus using heroin and cocaine. They are all illegal, so they must be bad; while alcohol and tobacco, both of which kill hundreds of thousands of people each year, are legal, so they must be okay. A simple formula for a simple man.
Younger readers may not know that for several decades, it was this “gateway” belief – specifically that those who begin by smoking marijuana would end up as heroin addicts – that supporters of the prohibition of marijuana used to justify the enormous social costs of maintaining that policy. They believed, or at least they argued, that there was something about the marijuana high that caused smokers to lose their self-control and develop a compulsion to use other stronger and more dangerous drugs, ending up as a heroin addict. The theory implies some biological mechanism that has no basis in science.
There was never any real data to support such a theory, and in fact, the vast majority of marijuana smokers have never used heroin.
Government surveys indicate approximately 115 million Americans have smoked marijuana (44 percent of those 12 years old and older), and 34 million Americans (13 percent of those 12 years old and older) are current users; while less than 4.6 million Americans (1.8 percent of those 12 years old and older) have ever tried heroin, and approximately 669,000 (0.25 percent) are current users. If marijuana smoking actually led to heroin use, we would have a lot more heroin users.
Those who initially raised the “gateway” theory were anti-drug warriors who would ask admitted heroin addicts if they had smoked marijuana before they used heroin. Not surprisingly, most of them had. But, of course, most of them had also used tobacco, alcohol, and prescription pain killers (and sometimes other drugs) before they used heroin, yet no one is claiming that alcohol or tobacco “leads to heroin”, although both of these drugs were nearly always used by these heroin addicts even before they had smoked marijuana.
The ultimate error in the conclusion reached by those who buy into the “gateway” theory is they confuse correlation with causation. The mere fact that one may have used one or more drugs prior to initiating heroin use may be explained by cultural or socio-economic factors, such as poverty and poor social environment, association with others who use dangerous drugs, and mental illnesses.
For decades, the addiction industry – addiction researchers and addiction treatment professionals – have continued to push the myth of the “gateway” theory, as it is the basis for much of their government and pharmaceutical funding. If the theory were acknowledged to be a myth, they would lose much of their funding, and their credibility.
And the law enforcement community, which largely sees marijuana prohibition as a jobs program for themselves, are only too happy to confirm, from their “boots on the ground” perspective, that the “gateway” theory is real. It justifies their insistence on treating marijuana use as a crime, which allows them to continue to violate people’s (largely motorists’) 4th Amendment rights, by the ruse of claiming they smelled marijuana. Marijuana itself may not be so bad, they now say, but it is this danger that marijuana smokers may progress to heroin use that warrants a criminal response and the wholesale violation of personal freedom.
But that old canard simply does not sell any longer. People are far too sophisticated, and many of them have personal experiences with marijuana that contradict the marijuana-leads-to-heroin myth. It is time for even our political opponents to move on to more reasonable and credible arguments. There may be legitimate concerns about possible unintended consequences of marijuana legalization, but marijuana smokers moving on to heroin is not one of them. That’s a silly, simplistic allegation without scientific or factual basis.
Risky Political Strategy for Christie
In addition, raising the “gateway” myth as an excuse to oppose marijuana legalization by the states is a risky political tactic for Governor Christie and others currently running for president. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 59 percent of the public (54 percent of Republicans, 58 percent of Democrats, and 64 percent of independents) say the federal government should stand aside and allow the states to experiment with different versions of legalization. And nearly 40 percent of those voters who continue to support marijuana prohibition, nonetheless oppose the federal government stepping in to impose its will on states that wish to legalize. A recent CBS News poll came to that same conclusion, finding that 65 percent of Republicans believe individual states should be allowed to decide their own marijuana policy, free from federal interference.
But that is not likely to change the position of Christie and others who choose to hang-on to their core belief that marijuana is the “devils weed.” It is a myth that they have used as the basis of their drug war rhetoric for decades, and it has always worked before. They presume, against all odds, that it will continue to assure their popularity and re-election against those who are “soft on drugs.” What it really does is demonstrate how out-of-date their ideas are, and assure them a permanent place on the wrong side of history.