The Gateway Drug Myth

Since Joe Biden’s recent announcement that he’s throwing his hat in the 2020 presidential ring, his abysmal stance on the War on Drugs has been the source of a great deal of criticism, even from those inclined to support him. Four years ago, he claimed that he opposed the legalization of cannabis because he still believed it to be a gateway drug — a position he appears to maintain. The gateway theory of marijuana is roughly as old as Biden himself, but as is so often the case with propagandized narratives, history reveals a lot about the policy.

When Congress was first debating the bill that criminalized marijuana in 1937, Harry Anslinger—the godfather of the War on Drugs—rejected any notion that marijuana use led to other drugs. During the marijuana hearings, Representative John Dingell asked Anslinger, “I am just wondering whether the marijuana addict graduates into a heroin, an opium, or a cocaine user?” Anslinger replied, “No, sir. I have not heard of a case of that kind. I think it is an entirely different class. The marijuana addict does not go in that direction.”

When the Cold War started, the narrative changed. As politicians mongered fear about communist takeovers, the narrative for marijuana use shifted to mirror Red Scare talking points. According to the “domino theory,” the Cold War was necessary because once one country fell to communism, the rest would supposedly fall. Although the domino analogy was originally proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, the origins of the idea are found in the Truman Doctrine of the 1940s.

In 1951, Anslinger adapted this logic to cannabis in a complete contradiction of his 1937 statements. At the time, it was referred to as the “progression theory” or the “stepping-stone thesis,” before the term “gateway drug” gained currency. During the Boggs Act Hearings, Anslinger said, “Over 50 percent of these young addicts started on marijuana smoking. They started there and graduated to heroin; they took the needle when the thrill of marihuana was gone.”1

It is not actually clear that the gateway drug theory was based on the Cold War ideas about the spread of communism, but the parallels are remarkable and the timing is revealing. On other marijuana claims, the connection to the Cold War was even more explicit. In 1948, Anslinger argued that marijuana use “leads to pacifism and Communist brainwashing”—another 180 degree turn from his early claim that marijuana was “the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind.”2

The marriage between the Cold War and the gateway drug theory survived through the end of the Vietnam War. As the United States was losing the war in Indochina, James Eastland held hearings to investigate how marijuana use affected U.S. security. The purpose of the hearings was to discredit Nixon’s own marijuana commission, which concluded—much to Nixon’s chagrin—that marijuana had no significant harmful effects and recommended decriminalization. Eastland’s hearings sought to use the Vietnam War to counter the commission’s findings. One of his talking points was that marijuana led soldiers to heroin, and this was undermining the war effort. In other words, because cannabis was a gateway drug, American safety was at risk.

Of course, he neglected to mention that heroin use among American GIs only increased after the army started cracking down on marijuana use in the late 1960s. When the Pentagon sent a researcher to Vietnam to study the success of its anti-marijuana policies, the researcher said, “Human ingenuity being what it is—and the desire for an intoxicant in Vietnam being what it was—many soldiers simply switched [to heroin].” One high ranking officer in Vietnam recognized the consequences as well, stating that “If it would get [the soldiers] to give up the hard stuff, I would buy all the marijuana and hashish in the Delta as a present.”3

In other words, marijuana did not drive soldiers to heroin; the military crackdown on marijuana did. But this hardly mattered to Eastland and other anti-drug politicians. All they needed to know was that widespread marijuana use preceded widespread heroin addiction. Without all the pesky details, the statistics fit their theory perfectly.

The 1970s also saw the media jumping in to support the gateway theory. Time magazine ran a story titled “Kids and Heroin: The Adolescent Epidemic” that claimed, “If a young person smokes marijuana on more than ten occasions, the chances are one in five that he will go on to more dangerous drugs.” At the time, most people were only concerned with heroin, if anything, and kids were not using heroin. But if you want to sell the news, as William Randolph Hearst famously prescribed, you need to do stories featuring a pretty girl, a dog, or a child. The gateway theory gave Times and other publications a way to link heroin to adolescents even though virtually zero high schoolers used the drug. The article gave no citations for its claims, except ambiguous references to unnamed “experts.”

In the 1980s, the gateway theory became the focal point of anti-marijuana rhetoric. Reagan’s drug czar, Carlton Turner, touted a study that “proved” marijuana caused heroin use. The study in question looked only at cocaine and heroin users, asking if they had first used marijuana (it asked no questions about tobacco, alcohol, or caffeine). Activist Susan Rusche coined the term “pre-addicted” to describe recreational marijuana users. Bob DuPont, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, published the book Getting Tough on Gateway Drugs. By the time Joe Biden helped author the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, the gateway theory had become holy doctrine.

But the Gateway Theory was based on logic that is simultaneously undeniably true and entirely misleading. As Anslinger pointed out, most people addicted to hard drugs first used marijuana. The trend is true today. In a recent attempt to resurrect Anslinger’s original marijuana narrative, novelist and New York Times journalist Alex Berenson cites a study by a Columbia psychologist claiming that people who used cannabis were more likely to use opiates than people who had never used cannabis.4

This is all true. It is also true that water runs downhill, which we hardly need an Ivy League study to demonstrate. If the starting point of an investigation is hard drugs, it is entirely predictable that addicts would have used softer intoxicants first. That’s the natural progression of any human activity. Weightlifters start with smaller weights before moving on to heavier ones. Readers who enjoy Leo Tolstoy often first read Dr. Seuss. People who use harder intoxicants understandably started with softer ones.

Among Berenson’s favorite pieces of evidence are two studies that involve twins. Essentially, the logic of twin studies is that researchers can control for genetic and environmental factors better than with any other pair of individuals. In cases in which only one twin used marijuana, that twin was far more likely to use harder drugs.5 But there is an underlying logical flaw here, as well. If genetics and environment are roughly held constant, what factors explain why only one of the twins chose to experiment with marijuana to begin with? The entire premise of twin studies should exclude this as a reasonable possibility from the outset.

The problem is that the studies touted by proponents of the gateway theory only look in one direction—they start with hard users and ask if they first used marijuana. Studies that begin with marijuana users tell a different story. If the gateway theory is true, increases in cannabis use should be accompanied by increases in harder drugs. This trend is not supported by the evidence. Over the decades, marijuana use has moved up and down according to the cultural trends of the day, but use of all other drugs has remained largely level. Even where we do see increases in heroin use, for instance, it fails to track with marijuana use — though it does track with prescription opioids.

While the gateway theory was gaining religious acceptance, a panoply of studies was being produced contradicting it. In 1982, the National Academy of Sciences weighed the scholarship on both sides of the debate in An Analysis of Marijuana Policy and concluded that there was no discernible link between marijuana use and harder drugs. In 1999, the Academy’s Institute of Medicine published an even broader study, Marijuana as Medicine: Assessing the Science Base, which not only touted several studies about the medical applications of cannabis, but it also addressed the gateway theory.

Although the study is careful not to take a firm position on anything, it notes that “most drug users do not begin their drug use with marijuana—they begin with alcohol and nicotine, usually when they are too young to do so legally.” It also adds it is not that the “pharmacological qualities of marijuana make it a risk factor for progression to other drugs. Instead, the legal status of marijuana makes it a gateway drug.” In short, to the degree that marijuana is a “stepping stone” to harder drugs, it is because users who find out that what they were taught about the dangers of marijuana was largely untrue, they are more likely to experiment with genuinely dangerous substances.

The gateway theory survives despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. It is an obvious truism that hard-drug users usually begin with marijuana—as well as tobacco, alcohol, and other substances—but the data clearly suggests no correlation between cannabis use and the adoption of hard drugs.

So why does Joe Biden, along with so many other politicians, stick with the gateway drug theory? It is impossible to say, of course, without access to his inner thoughts. But for a man who quite literally made his career as a drug hawk, the narrative about drugs has served him well politically.

Many people still buy into the old myths, especially when the propagation of information has so disproportionately focused on the arguments that confirm anti-marijuana biases—and demagoguery wins elections. Voters are divided in their support of marijuana decriminalization more by age than party. As more democratic candidates support legalization, Biden’s hard stance against criminalization and adherence to the Reagan-era narrative, particularly given the constancy of his record as a drug warrior, is a great way to set himself apart from the numerous contenders for the nomination.

  • 1. United States Congress Senate Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency, Marijuana Decriminalization: Hearing Before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Ninety-Fourth Congress, First Session … May 14, 1975 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), 485–86.
  • 2. Martin A. Lee, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational and Scientific (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), 62.
  • 3. Dan Baum, Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1996), 50.
  • 4. Alex Berenson, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence (New York: Free Press, 2019), 113.
  • 5. Berenson, 108.

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