The Gateway Myth

I’ve heard the story hundreds of time: pot is the “gateway” drug.  Smoke a joint one day and next thing you know you are hooked on heroin or cocaine. I recall sitting in on a panel discussion on drugs at UNLV and a couple of the “experts” (one, not surprisingly, a vice cop) repeated the claim.  One man in the audience who was apparently an ex-con told the audience that something like “everyone I knew in prison who used heroin or cocaine also smoked pot.”  My protests to the contrary fell upon deaf ears. 

Part of this myth is the confusion of cause and effect. Most of the time those who argue in favor of the gateway myth look at all the people who have used heroin or cocaine and when the learn that most of them first used pot therefore the use of pot led to the use of the other drugs.  They forget that heroin and cocaine users are a very small group whereas pot users are a very large group (over half of all Americans have used pot compared to less than 5% who use the other two drugs.  Most who use marijuana never use the other two drugs.

A recent study documents this myth but goes one step further: the real “gateway” drug is alcohol. The study appeared in the Journal of School Health.  Based upon data supplied by a Monitoring the Future survey Among other findings the study noted that high school seniors who had used alcohol at least once in their lives “were 13 times more likely to use cigarettes, 16 times more likely to use marijuana and other narcotics, and 13 times more likely to use cocaine.”

A 2010 study in the prestigious journal Lancet ranked 20 drugs on 16 different measures of harm to users and to wider society. While heroin, crack and crystal meth were found to be worst for individuals, alcohol, heroin and crack cocaine were rated worst for society as a whole. Overall, alcohol was rated the worst.  In fact, the Lancet study found that harms to others near the user from the alcohol were more than double those of the second most harmful drug, heroin.

Ask anyone associated with the criminal justice system how often they come to a violent crime scene and find alcohol was directly involved rather than pot or other drugs and they will tell you about the importance of alcohol.  Yet this most dangerous drug is perfectly legal and supported by a powerful industry.  Indeed, tune in to a sporting event – especially football – and see how many beer and whiskey commercials there are.