"Gateway?" More Like Roadblock!
by Brian C. Bennett

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) tells us that "marijuana users are 8 times more likely to have used cocaine, 15 times more likely to have used heroin, and 5 times more likely to develop a need for treatment of abuse or dependence on ANY drug." These statistics, according to the ONDCP, prove that marijuana is a gateway to the use of other drugs. Before we give in to the hysteria and hand-wringing though, let's have a look at what's really going on.

The National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) is an annual survey produced under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and serves as the basis for many of the claims made by ONDCP concerning drug use in America.

If we take the time to look at the data from this survey, however, we can quickly see that ONDCP is, shall we say, grossly distorting and exaggerating the "threat" posed to our society by marijuana use.

In order to determine the likelihood that using one drug will lead to the use of another, it would be helpful to have some idea of exactly how many people have used various drugs. If we have those numbers we can better make comparisons and determinations about patterns of drug use. Fortunately, the NHSDA gives us exactly the data we need.

One measure of drug use contained in the NHSDA is the total number of first time drug users for every year from 1965 to the present for each substance commonly used for self-intoxication. If there is a drug conduit leading from one drug to the next "more dangerous" one, there should be some pattern evident in these numbers.

Indeed there is a pattern: most people who have used marijuana will never move on to using other "more dangerous" drugs. The total number of first time users shown in the graph below clearly show that the more "dangerous" a drug is, the less likely it is that someone will try it. While ONDCP would like us to buy into their gateway theory, three decades of data clearly show there is no such thing.

So then, what is really going on, and how can we best understand the relationship between smoking marijuana and the use of other drugs? Perhaps the best analogy would be a comparison to some other class of risky behavior, say flying.

Most people are not afraid to fly and the view the risk of doing so as minimal. Therefore, many millions of people have flown in airplanes. Similarly, most people regard alcohol as not too dangerous to use, thus a large number have done so.

Some people think that flying in an airplane is safe enough, but they need to be further stimulated by actually flying airplanes. Use of marijuana is analogous -- since it is illegal, it is more "dangerous" so fewer people will try it than will try alcohol.

A smaller number of people will be attracted to the danger presented by leaping from the airplane with a parachute. This is behavior that many people will regard as "fairly dangerous," and analogous to use of cocaine or hallucinogens.

Lastly, a very very small number of people may find it necessary to stimulate themselves further by first throwing a parachute from an airplane and then leaping after it. Such behavior is clearly beyond the bounds of comfort for all but the most foolhardy of risk takers. Such is the case among drug users when it comes to trying heroin.

Using the logic driving ONDCP's "gateway theory," we may declare that: people who fly airplanes are 10 times as likely to have ridden in an airplane first, and those who leap from airplanes are 100,000 times as likely to have done so.

Does flying in an airplane constitute a gateway to leaping from them? Certainly one has to have been inside an airplane before one can leap from it, but obviously a smaller percentage of those who ride inside airplanes are compelled to leap from them, and hardly any of them feel compelled to walk about on the outside of them or chuck a parachute out then jump after it.

What is actually going on is something much simpler: people have different toleration of and requirement for taking risks. Those who will engage in a high risk behavior are naturally more likely to engage in lower risk behaviors. So, sure as ONDCP declares, "99 percent of those who use other drugs will have begun by smoking a little weed." Just as 99 percent of those who jumping out of airplanes probably started out by riding in them first.

When it comes to marijuana and the use of other drugs, the more proper description of the relationships is this: of all people who have tried marijuana, less than one-third will try cocaine or hallucinogens, and less than four percent of marijuana smokers will try heroin.

As former drug "czar" Barry McCaffrey was fond of saying "you're entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own data." That's why I use his data.

Written Jan 15, 2003

Published online at BBSNews

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