One of the most frustrating arguments presented by supporters of prohibition is the “Marijuana is a Gateway Drug” trope. The idea here is when you ask a heroin, cocaine, or meth addict “what was the first drug you ever tried?”, they inevitably answer “marijuana”. Therefore, the gateway theory goes, sparking up that first joint will begin the long slippery slide into crippling drug addiction.
It does not matter that government researchers have already declared in 1999 that “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs“. The “gateway” theory is one of those urban legends that is proving very difficult to kill.
However, an analysis of the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) shows that your first aspirin is more likely to be your gateway to hard drugs than your first joint.
We cross-referenced the NSDUH numbers based on whether someone had ever tried marijuana. We found that only 1.5% of people who have toked became monthly cocaine users. For ecstasy, crack, meth, heroin, LSD, and PCP, less than 1% of the people who’ve tried pot are using those drugs regularly. Meanwhile, 2.9% of the people who’ve ever tried an legal analgesic (pain reliever) are regular cocaine users. For ecstasy, crack, and meth, more than 1% of who tried analgesics are regular users. People who tried analgesics are more than twice as likely as people who tried pot to use heroin regularly and three times more likely to use LSD regularly.
We also find that binge drinkers – defined as 5 or more drinks at a sitting at least once a month – are more likely to be regular hard drug users than people who have tried marijuana. To be fair, alcohol supporters might point out that comparing regular beer use to one-time pot use is unfair, and when compared to regular marijuana users, beer users have 1/2 to 1/3 the hard drug regular use rates. In response, we’d say that regular beer drinkers don’t have to pick up a six pack from an illegal dealer who also sells other drugs.
But if opponents want to cling to the idea that we should do everything in our power to stop someone from smoking that first marijuana joint, lest they become illegal drug addicts, then it is time to prohibit Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet, and Oxycontin, those powerful legal opioid pain killers. The first Vicodin/Lortab/Lorcet leads to almost three times the risk of becoming a non-pot illegal drug user than the first joint amd almost the same risk as smoking a joint every month. That first Oxycontin is more than five times the risk for drug abuse than the first joint.