The long and political history of how weed came to be known as a “Gateway drug"
If you smoke weed, you’ll eventually fall into an addictive spiral. You’ll move on to cocaine or crack. Or worse, you’ll get hooked on heroin, the hardest of the hardest drugs.
At least, that’s what the “gateway hypothesis” says, a favorite argument of pot prohibitionists both old and new.
Although the average pothead knows the gateway argument is nonsense, that hasn’t stopped today’s politicians from parroting this scare tactic. Recently outed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions quipped in February that “marijuana and a lot of other drugs” were at fault for the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Democrats have toed the gateway line, too, as Rhode Island senator Patrick Kennedy wrote in 2014 that marijuana legalization “is why I hear even more stories from recovering addicts who say, ‘It all started with pot.’”
Research, however, doesn’t support the gateway hypothesis. At least, not really. It’s true that cannabis use can correlate to harder drug use, but there’s no evidence that it causes harder drug use. According to science, if any substance could truly assume the gateway mantle, it’s booze.
So where did this myth begin, and why has it persisted despite years of research saying otherwise?
It Starts with Heroin
The gateway myth was born in the 1940s, says Richard Bonnie. Bonnie is a medical and legal historian at the University of Virginia. He’s also the co-author of The Marijuana Conviction, a classic tome that traced the plant’s rocky legal status over the last century.
“Post-war and certainly in the 1950s, drug policy attention was clearly focused on the heroin epidemic of that period,” Bonnie told Rooster over the phone. “There were the two usual policy initiatives, one more punitive and one more therapeutic in orientation.”
After World War II, when American troops returned home, many of them brought heroin addictions back with them. This led to one of the first major heroin epidemics in the U.S., an early iteration of what we’re experiencing today.
According to Bonnie, organizations such as the American Medical Association urged Congress to create more rehab and educational programs to fight the epidemic. But federal legislators in 1951 and in 1956 fell back on the ol’ “get tough” rhetoric, and they successfully fought to increase legal penalties for narcotic use. However, “narcotic” wasn’t clearly defined at that time, and cannabis got tossed in with other addictive drugs.
“It’s not as if the gateway argument hadn’t been made in the past,” he added, “but this was when it first became policy.”
Or Did It Start with Suburbia?
Seth Blumenthal, a history professor at Boston University, is currently working on a book about the gateway hypothesis and how it has evolved over the decades. He also noted the gateway theory didn’t have much support prior to the 1950s, and he pointed to Harry Anslinger, the Bureau of Narcotics chief and architect behind American pot prohibition, as proof.
“Anslinger argued that there was no gateway theory” while presenting testimony to Congress in 1937 in support of the Marihuana Tax Act, the law that created modern prohibition, Blumenthal said. “That marijuana was so bad that it didn’t need to lead to opioid addiction or anything worse. It was just bad enough on its own.”
But the heroin epidemic of the 1950s doesn’t explain why the gateway myth has persisted over half a century later. Instead, Blumenthal’s research suggests the idea is largely the product of middle-class suburban parents.
In the 1950s, during the so-called “White Flight,” ethnic minority families began moving into traditionally white neighborhoods. Middle-class Caucasians could escape a life of diversity by moving to newer suburban neighborhoods erected on the outskirts of big cities.
At the same time, Hollywood and the music industry had begun promoting the concept of the American teenager, a consumer identity that existed independently of one’s parents. If the gateway hypothesis reflects the anxieties of America’s white parents, then the white teen was simply a victim of drug addiction rather than a participant.
“In the 1930s, it was believed that marijuana led to general adolescent misbehavior,” Blumenthal explained. “Then in the 1950s, the rationale was marijuana would lead young people into communism.”
In the 1970s, he continued, marijuana was thought to convert teens to the counterculture. By the 1980s, the Reagan administration argued that marijuana would lead teenagers into a life of homosexual depravity, introducing America’s vulnerable youth to the ravages of HIV and AIDS.
The gateway hypothesis has never been applied equally, as it goes with anything related to drug laws. When it came to suburban Caucasians, the gateway hypothesis could exonerate white kids, to lessen the severity of any legal or social penalties they faced if caught with herb.
But when it came to African-Americans and other people of color, groups that have traditionally been stereotyped as dope peddlers, the gateway hypothesis worked against them.
“The theory requires that you have a predatory drug dealer that tempts the innocent, suburban drug user first with marijuana then introduces them to harder substances,” Blumenthal said. “The racial dimension gave comfort to white families, but it had detrimental consequences for the way Americans perceived drug policy and law enforcement.”
A Gateway with Three Entrances
To understand the complexities of the gateway hypothesis, Richard Bonnie said we should recognize there are actually three different gateway explanations.
The first is the pharmacologic explanation, that cannabis rewires the brain to crave more potent highs. The second is a market explanation, that engaging with an illegal market such as weed places the individual closer to other illegal markets, like heroin or meth.
The third explanation, which Bonnie said has ample scientific support, cautions against any adolescent use of any substance, as the developing mind is more susceptible to abuse.
“That’s true with tobacco, that’s true with alcohol, that’s true with marijuana,” he said. “That’s not a gateway hypothesis, but that is a prediction that the earlier you use any of these substances, you’re more likely to use any of these other substances.”
So, basically, kids: stay in school, and stay away from drugs. If you crave dopamine spikes, just stick with social media.