This post was originally published on May 7, 2015.
It seems every other day there’s new research on the pros or perils of marijuana use. And every time new research is published, be it highlighting the advantageous or deleterious effects of toking, a slurry of opinions hit the media, in every publication from HuffPo to High Times to Newsweek. One of the central arguments against legalization that’s favored by conservative politicians, of course, is that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder drugs, especially for young people.
Is it possible to just smoke weed and not move on to the harder stuff? Surely you know someone who just loves weed and doesn’t like snorting coke or eating speed—someone, in fact, who might detest the idea of being all hopped up and only want to chill out with friends, maybe read or play a video game. Or perhaps a senior citizen really does find relief from their glaucoma after smoking a joint. Does that 85-year-old end up turning to smack?
As states start legalizing weed, conservative politicians like New Jersey Govenor Chris Christie and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh cling to the claim that pot is the gateway drug. Some research has indicated that marijuana use sensitizes the brain to drugs, thereby creating a desire for more drugs, which would prompt a pot smoker, or even a drinker and smoker, to move on to cocaine or crack or something else. But there’s also research that proves the majority of pot smokers don’t move on to harder drugs. In fact, the same research shows that by the time these potheads get old enough to have to hold down a job or start a family, they usually ditch the weed along with other more, em, youthful habits.
So why all the insistence that pot is the gateway drug?
Correlation vs Causation
The majority of research that links hitting the bong with moving on to harder drugs mistakes correlation for causation. Sure, lots of coke addicts started smoking weed first, and maybe the same goes for their meth-head buddies. But this correlation does not mean there’s a causation.
Of course, there’s the research that suggests changes in the brain due to pot provide causation for hard drug use. Neuroscientist Dr. Jodi Gilman says even a tiny bit of pot can bring on “exposure-dependent alterations of the neural matrix of core reward systems” for young smokers.
But then there are loads of studies that contradict this. Some researchers examined holes in Gilman’s studies, including lack of controls taking into account alcohol and other drugs when studying subjects’ brains. There are also a surfeit of other studies that discount the gateway hypothesis. But most of them were done outside the US or by legalization organizations; if you’re a conservative politician, that’s an instant strike against you.
Pot is a Gateway to…Pot
Look, I’m no scientist or social scientist or political scientist, so I’m going to opt out of the legalization debate. But the truth is I smoked weed and never tried a hard drug because they never appealed to me and also out of fear that I’d become addicted and they’d destroy my life, which is ironic, since alcohol seemed to do that job just fine. Call me a goody-two-shoes, but I’m glad for the extra brain cells, thank you very much. Though I smoked weed every now and then, I wasn’t a fan of—it made me extremely paranoid, sometimes psychotic and extremely stupid.
The gateway drug theory does seem a bit weak. As far as correlation between causation is concerned, there’s little meat for the causation argument. Does this mean weed is harmless? Hardly. According to plenty of research, that answer would be a big no, despite the incessant cry from the legalization camp that this isn’t so. It’s a substance that can have some pretty big consequences on the brain, but so can alcohol, Adderall, Oxycodone and Valium, and those are legal.
So are deep-fried Twinkies and bacon (which might of course be a pot head’s dream meal). But at least deep-fried Twinkies and bacon won’t make you forget what you were saying mid-sentence.
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