The Gateway-Drug Myth Goes to Pot

"I've got a fat lip," President Barack Obama told New Yorker editor David Remnick on an Air Force One flight this fall, while munching away on Nicorette. The injury resulted from a blow to the face during the president's favorite stress-reliever—basketball. And since he was in Washington, D.C. at the time of the incident, which, along with 20 states, recognizes the medicinal properties of marijuana, he should have considered indulging in one of his favorite former stress-relievers to alleviate his oral anguish—smoking weed. ("I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice," he told Remnick.) Ideally, he would puff on a strain bred for a high percentage of Cannabidiol—a chemical in pot that can relieve pain, sleeplessness and anxiety—without the psychoactive effects of its trippier cousin tetrahydrocannabinol (a.k.a. THC).

Is the thought of Obama turning to medical marijuana so far-fetched? Maybe not. "I don't think [marijuana] is more dangerous than alcohol," he told Remnick later in that same New Yorker profile, which was released over the weekend.

Of course, he's simply stating the obvious. Weed has never killed anyone from overdosing, whereas alcohol does every day. But while Obama's remarks to Remnick foreshadow an "evolving" progressive opinion on marijuana, Obama still can't help but default to the (il)logic of slippery slopes when playing devil's advocate to his own, increasingly #420friendly, ideas on drug policy: "If marijuana is fully legalized and at some point folks say, Well, we can come up with a negotiated dose of cocaine that we can show is not any more harmful than vodka, are we open to that? If somebody says, We've got a finely calibrated dose of meth, it isn't going to kill you or rot your teeth, are we O.K. with that?"

His point—that we can't think about changing policy for one substance without thinking about how it'll affect our opinion of the others—shows how the president still seems to view marijuana policy through the outdated "gateway-drug" lens. It's a frame that shuts out the possibility of legalizing marijuana on its own merits, and it's the policy equivalent of the paranoid parent fretting that his 14-year-old's pot smoking is a direct line to crack.

But despite the gateway drug theory's fact-free origins, it's routinely trotted out in "serious" policy discussions—for instance, on Monday's episode of MSBNC's Hardball, when host Chris Matthews invited two Kennedy cousins on to lambaste Obama's New Yorker remarks. "I've hung around guys that drank too much, and after they drank too much would go look for dope around midnight," Matthews bloviated. "So don't tell me booze wasn't a gateway to dope or to marijuana. I don't have that much experience with the other stuff, but I do have that concern about the gateway issue."

Former Rhode Island congressman—and more germane, former OxyContin addict—Patrick Kennedy agreed: "If you have a pre-disposition to addiction, this is going to be a gateway." He then called on the president to respect what science had to say about pot—that it can cause your IQ to drop or ambitions to lower. (Oddly, Obama said about as much to Remnick, calling pot a "waste of time" and a "bad idea"; his new sympathies with the legalization movement align not with the plant, but with the social justice arguments about race and incarceration.)

Yet if we're invoking science, we should note that scientists debunked the pot-as-gateway-drug myth as early as 15 years ago. "There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs," Institute of Medicine researchers wrote in a 1999 report commissioned by Congress.

The statistics bear this out as well. Millions of Americans try marijuana each year; many fewer try cocaine or heroin (2.4 million, 617,000, and 180,000, respectively, in 2009). This means that if you've done a harder drug, you're much more likely to have tried pot. But pot didn't necessarily make you do it, and most people who try pot don't try harder drugs.

But if we take the gateway logic seriously, Matthews was right about one thing: Alcohol can be a common "gateway" to the illicit use of drugs since it tends to precede use of even marijuana. Marijuana, on the other hand, has not made drug use spike in Los Angeles or other California cities where weed has been unofficially legal for years. And a 2013 study published in The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management argued that an increase in pot smoking in Colorado and Washington would likely reduce drinking and its associated social harms, like traffic fatalities, as young people turn to pot as a substitute. Overdoses on legal prescription pills have skyrocketed in recent years, but start talking with medical-marijuana advocates and you're likely to hear outrage over the perils of painkillers—often because those same people took up pot-smoking to wean themselves off of OxyContin (the painkiller that landed Patrick Kennedy in rehab). So while it's possible that marijuana leads some people to harder drugs, it's probably an endpoint—or even a lifesaver—for many more.

Still, Kennedy warns Obama that "the new marijuana is not the old marijuana." And he's right: the THC levels are higher than ever, making for a more potent buzz. But the "new pot"—grown and distributed by experts, not criminals—is also safer, cleaner and more consumer-friendly. Today's stoners in Washington and Colorado don't have to worry about buying weed off the street laced with PCP. And they have an unprecedented level of control over the type of high they want to experience, whether an active one for focusing (from a sativa strain) or a mellow one for sleeping (from an indica).

Those perks mean that the main habit marijuana encourages among its smokers is more marijuana, not other drugs. It also encourages rule-breaking, which explains the drugs status as the go-to lifestyle choice for those alienated by conformity, consumerism and competition (among other things). But when it's legal, when professionals continue to come out about their marijuana usage, when it's just as normalized and branded as alcohol—then what?

After the initial hubbub caused by Obama's statements, his press secretary, Jay Carney, affirmed that "the president's position on these matters haven't changed," namely, he still opposes decriminalization. That perspective will undoubtedly "evolve" just a few years behind his views on gay marriage. So while we wait for weed to become just as uncontroversial as being gay, can we please purge the gateway-drug discourse from the national conversation?


Zak Stone is a Playboy contributing editor based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared on Next City, Fast Company and NY Mag's The Cut. Follow him on Twitter @_zs.

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