Proposed in a 1975 Science journal study, the gateway theory suggests that using soft substances like cannabis, alcohol and tobacco is a behavioral doorway that leads to so-called hard drugs like heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and MDMA. The hypothesis—in effect an updated version of the 1930s stepping-stone theory—based its findings on observational data that says many hard-drug users previously smoked cannabis. Many question this approach because, using the same clinical standards, a researcher might observe the last three U.S. Presidents and conclude the plant is really a gateway to the White House. So is cannabis a gateway drug? In some ways, yes, but it is not exactly a gateway in the manner that prohibitionists suggest.
Prohibition is the Real Gateway Drug
In 2003, Reason argued that cannabis prohibition is the real gateway to substance-use progression. The study described the drug succession as follows:
A person who breaks the law to try cannabis becomes less reluctant to break the law again to try hard drugs
Once the person realizes the government lied about cannabis, he or she is less inclined to believe official warnings about other substances
Once individuals purchase cannabis on the black market, they likely have the opportunity to purchase harder drugs
In 2012, the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal published a study that largely debunked the gateway hypothesis. The team of authors concluded that association does not demonstrate causation, and common underpinnings better explain the progression to hard drugs than specific staging. Furthermore, the same journal in 2010 conducted a multi-national study that made the gateway theory appear even more implausible. Looking at 18- to 29-year-olds in Japan, the authors noted that cannabis is used less than other illicit substances (4.5 vs. 4.8 percent), and an astonishing 83.2 percent took hard drugs without first trying cannabis. Indeed, if scientific conclusions can be based purely on observational associations, one could argue that Pokémon is the real gateway drug in Japan.
The Gateway Theory as Propaganda
The government and various groups have inundated society with dishonest anti-cannabis propaganda for more than a century, and individuals with personal experience and educated research recognize the false alarm for what it is. Speak nonsense, such as President Nixon’s claim that cannabis was a Communist weapon sent to destroy America, and credibility takes a hit. The gateway theory similarly presents a featherweight argument that feeds public skepticism. When the government cries wolf over cannabis this many times, many people unfortunately tune out when it cries wolf about serious problems like prescription drugs and opiates. Per Time magazine in 2015, clinical researcher Yasmin Hurd explained, “[The] strategy of scaring people rather than provide knowledge has made people skeptical now when they hear anything negative.”
The US Government (Partly) Comes Clean
The U.S. government still utilizes prohibitionist propaganda. In 2015, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) argued that cannabis primes the brain for enhanced responses to other drugs, which it cited as evidence in favor of the gateway theory. By that measure, one might also argue for the prohibition of religion since observational data suggests that sacred texts prime the brain for polygamy, concubines and terrorism. Fortunately, NIDA did admit that the majority of cannabis users do not move on to harder substances, and cross-sensitized brain priming also occurs with alcohol and cigarettes. Noting other factors that also play a role (e.g., biological mechanisms, social environment), NIDA surprisingly offered the alternative theory that people inclined to hard drugs simply start with the substances most readily available. This marks one of the government’s first honest applications of the gateway theory.