For almost 50 years, there’s been a debate about whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug.
More and more, public opinion suggests it isn’t, even as studies continue to produce mixed results on the question.
The question has emerged as more and more states legalize marijuana for either medical use (33 states) or recreational use (eight, plus the District of Columbia).
During the recent election cycle, candidates have been asked their views on the subject. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden made news most recently with his assertion that marijuana does lead to use of other, more dangerous drugs such as cocaine or opioids. Likewise, Andy Taggart, who ran for Mississippi Attorney General, also stated his view that marijuana is a gateway drug. Taggart’s views were influenced by the suicide of his son in 2012, who had struggled with addiction.
Eddie Hawkins won the Lowndes County (Mississippi) Sheriff’s race in November. He has gone on record as saying marijuana is a gateway drug based on his 20 years of services as Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics agent.
More and more, however, that view is trending toward outlier status.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 1 in 3 people in the U.S. oppose legalized marijuana compared to 1 in 2 just nine years ago. What’s more, of those who do approve of legalization, 91% say it should be approved by both medical and recreational use while just 32% say it should be legal for medical use only.
Just 8% say marijuana should remain illegal.
Your view also may be influenced by your age, the research shows.
Biden, Taggart and Hawkins are all over age 50. At 77, Biden’s views are consistent with his Silent Generation peers for whom approval of legal marijuana is lowest at 33%. Taggart and Hawkins are among the 44% of Baby Boomers opposed to legal marijuana.
Meanwhile, Millennials support legalized marijuana by a 4-to-1 margin, the Pew Research shows.
The shifting attitudes toward legalized marijuana shows less faith in the gateway drug argument that was long the best argument against legalization.
But those are perceptions. What does the data say?
There are arguments made on both sides, based on data compiled from states where legal marijuana exists.
In Colorado where recreational marijuana was approved in 2013, DUI arrests are down 15% between 2012 and 2017, based on the Colorado Department of Public Safety’s study. Marijuana use increased only marginally over that period (0.3%) and usage among Colorado high school students was actually lower in 2017 than the national average (by 0.4%).
On the other hand, organized crime — primarily illegal growing and sales of marijuana — quadrupled over that five-year period.
Violent crimes and property crimes were not significantly impacted, according to the study.
It does not seem likely, based on what we know, that marijuana is the menace it was once perceived to be.
Yet the question remains: Is marijuana a gateway drug?
If you believe it is, you’ll point to the evidence that shows that the majority of those who are cocaine or heroin users say their first exposure to illegal drugs was marijuana.
If you believe it isn’t, you’ll point to the Pew research data that shows 95% of marijuana users do not go on to use harder drugs.
So, it really may be a matter of perception.
And if that’s the case, it seems almost certain that marijuana will someday be legalized throughout the country.
An editorial from The Dispatch in Mississippi.