This is a question that millions of people have been asking for nearly a hundred years. In fact, the argument that “cannabis is a gateway drug that leads to harder narcotics” is brought up nearly every time someone talks about legalization or normalizing cannabis, and is one of the most popular misconceptions about cannabis.
Tracing its roots back to the 1930s during the Harry Anslinger era, the concept of cannabis as a gateway drug was first heard of in the United States of America almost immediately after prohibition and was carried forward here in Canada as well.
It was introduced simultaneously with the idea that cannabis inspires violence and that its users (who were mostly Hispanic and African American) were a potential security threat to the nation. Needless to say, these claims were made without any scientific evidence backing them, and were mostly the whims and fears of corrupt lawmakers.
Luckily, today scientific research done on the benefits and downsides of the cannabis plant has proven that Cannabis is not a gateway drug. In fact, the truth is quite the opposite, and can be used as an exit drug.
This was proven through an extensive research conducted at the State University of New York in 2017, which compared the potential harms of cannabis as compared to tobacco and alcohol. The study concluded that there was no actual scientific evidence which proved that cannabis was a gateway drug, and that it was also potentially less harmful than tobacco and alcohol.
But then, where did this misconception come from? Why did it become so popular? And what does science actually say on this subject?
To understand all of this, we first have to take a short trip through history and see how misinformation and biasness shaped the people’s views regarding cannabis for nearly a whole century. Let’s begin.
Nearly a hundred years of misinformation
While anti-marijuana feelings were already present among many Americans, they were brought to a bubbling point by Harry Anslinger almost immediately after the prohibition.
The first commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now called the DEA) published an article titled “Marijuana: Assassin of Youth” in The American Magazine, which claimed that marijuana was a potentially dangerous drug used by Mexicans and African Americans.
Anslinger even consulted 30 different doctors, out of which only one claimed that cannabis could be linked to violence, and for further effect, included quotations from police records to depict the brutal offenses committed by supposed drug abusers. Perhaps the most famous one among these was the story of Victor Licata, an Italian-American man who suffered from schizophrenia and had hacked his family to death.
While it is true that Victor Licata did use marijuana, Anslinger used this fact out of context to portray cannabis as a violent drug, and it worked. He used the same tactic on national radio, and within the year had nearly all major papers talking about the dangers of pot. Anslinger’s efforts were further helped by the 1936 movie “Reefer Madness”.
However the suggestion that marijuana may be used as a stepping stone or gateway drug was introduced by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1960s in the form of the Benjamin Center papers. They argued that drug dealers aimed to hook people, particularly teenagers and young people, on marijuana before switching them towards stronger, more dangerous and more expensive drugs.
But the most surprising thing about this argument was not the fact that these lawmakers did not have any scientific evidence to support this statement. Instead, it was the fact that they had evidence that marijuana dealers were vastly different from the people who dealt in other drugs.
Which leads us to the following question, why did they do this? Let’s see
Why did it all happen?
There are numerous reasons for this. To begin with, cannabis in the United States usually came from Mexico, and was mostly smuggled across the border by legal and illegal immigrants. Not only did this give rise to racist and anti-Hispanic feelings, but had also created a tax free industry. Many believe that the campaign against marijuana was just a front, fueled by white supremacist motives of US lawmakers.
On the other hand, many people blame Harry Anslinger for these misconceptions, and claim that he started the crackdown on marijuana users after his job in the U.S Treasury Department’s Bureau of Prohibition ended in the 1930’s. Whatever the reason was, the impact of these campaigns was certainly very successful, and one which we are still recovering from today.
So is Cannabis really a Gateway Drug?
The short answer is no. Numerous researches have been conducted on this hypothesis and have failed to find any plausible relationship between cannabis and the use of other illicit drugs.. In fact, we’ve known this fact for a long, long time. A 1999 study conducted by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that while many users have used cannabis either prior to or along with other illicit drugs, there was no statistically significant relationship among them.
On the other hand, recent research on rats from the National Institute on Drug Abuse argues that early exposure to cannabis in childhood and adolescence can reduce the brain’s reactivity to dopamine reward centers in adulthood. And while researchers indicate that these findings can be generalized to humans, there are still large differences between humans and rodents, and more research is needed on the topic before a definite conclusion can be reached.
Other than this research on rats, anecdotal evidence and studies on the users of cannabis and other illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine indicate that cannabis is not a gateway drug. Instead, research conducted in the medicinal benefits of cannabis suggests that it can be used as a tool to fight opioid dependency and help addicts get off dangerous drugs.
So is cannabis a gateway drug? Well, a majority of the evidence says that it is not.
However, while cannabis may not push you towards harder narcotics, it might lead you to binge-eat a lot of deep fried, spicy food that you might end up regretting later. You have been warned.