Marijuana as a Gateway Drug

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Sociology 225
Research Paper

Marijuana as a Gateway Drug
The gateway theory is a hypothesis which states that the use of gateway drugs (alcohol, tobacco and marijuana) lead to the use of more illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), marijuana is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. “Schedule I drugs are classified as having a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States, and a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.” Marijuana is thus considered by the U.S. government to be more dangerous than cocaine and opium - both Schedule II drugs, and at the same time a gateway to these harder and more addictive drugs. The government’s position is not only paradoxical, but should be a reason for debate as to the credibility of the gateway theory. A detailed look is warranted because of the magnitude it has on affecting U.S. drug policy. According to the “Reassessing the marijuana gateway effect” article, there are three phenomena which represent the evidence for a marijuana gateway effect. The first is “the relative risk of hard drug initiation for adolescent marijuana users vs. non-users. In one U.S. study, the risk of drug progression for a marijuana user was 85 times that of a non-user” (Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse 1994). The figure makes apparent sense because as will be seen an individual who uses marijuana is further up the drug escalation ladder than a non-user. The second is the hierarchy of drug use. It is assumed that alcohol precedes all other drugs giving rise to tobacco products, followed by marijuana and finally hard drugs. This is not to say that all users follow this building block approach, but the likelihood of an individual trying hard drugs before marijuana is unlikely. In fact, “in a longitudinal sample of 1,265 New Zealand youths between the ages of 15 and 21, Fergusson and Horwood (2000) found only three cases reporting use of hard drugs before marijuana.” The diminished capacity of risk behavior does give some credence to a hierarchal view of drugs in relation to the gateway theory. A drug user engaging in one risky behavior is more likely to view another risky behavior in a more favorable light. The last phenomenon as described by Morral, McCaffrey and Paddock is the correlation between increased marijuana use and the increased risk of initiating hard drug use. A study to support this claim was conducted by Fergusson & Horwood (2000), in which “youths reporting 50 or more uses of cannabis in the past year had hazards of progression to hard drugs that were more than 140 times greater than those for youths reporting no use of cannabis.” The link between increased marijuana use and the increased risk of initiation among hard drugs might be due to the illegality of marijuana. In most cases, marijuana is purchased through a drug dealer, who might also carry other illegal substances such as cocaine and heroin. It is safe to assume that there may be a likely transfer from one drug to another through mere occurrence. Another possible explanation for the progression from one drug to another can be the result of a social setting: peer-pressure or inhibition. In the “Reassessing the marijuana gateway effect” study, it was concluded that the gateway effect might exist, but there could be alternative explanations for its existence:

“While not disproving the existence of the marijuana gateway effect, our findings demonstrate that the primary evidence supporting gateway effects is equally consistent with an alternative model of adolescent drug use initiation in which use, per se, of marijuana has no effect on the later use of hard drugs.”

These scenarios provide some insight that no one has a predisposition to harder drugs with accompanying marijuana use. The likelihood of a person waking up one morning and...
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