Busting the myths: Experts don’t consider marijuana a gateway drug — and 5 more fact checks from Texas’ push to decriminalize weed
Lawmakers of all political stripes were chomping at the bit this session to file — or sign onto — bills that would decriminalize or lessen the criminal penalties for Texans found with small amounts of marijuana.
Getting such a measure across the finish line seemed feasible with newfound support from Republican leaders that have long controlled the Texas Legislature. In their most recent platform, the Republican Party of Texas approved a plank for the first time supporting making it a civil, rather than a criminal, offense to possess an ounce or less of marijuana. Months later during a gubernatorial debate, Gov. Greg Abbott wouldn’t go that far — but he opened the door to reducing penalties for low-level possession of marijuana from a Class B to a Class C misdemeanor.
Since the session began, lawmakers have heard from law enforcement, people arrested for marijuana-related charges and even people who smoke recreationally. They’ve explained why they believe the drug should be decriminalized — or why Texas’ laws should stay as they are.
With Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both opposed to legalization, it’s unlikely Texas will become the next Colorado or California anytime soon. But when it comes to loosening criminal penalties or expanding medicinal use, how much of what each side says is true?
Here’s some context on claims made about the drug this legislative session.
Claim: “All drug addicts … start with marijuana”
This theory is one of the most common arguments heard from opponents of decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.
Case in point: Plano Police Sgt. Terence Holway’s claim during a House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing where a panel of lawmakers heard testimony on a bill by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, that would replace the criminal penalty for people caught with an ounce or less of marijuana and replace it with a civil fine of up to $250.
“Not all marijuana smokers become drug addicts, but all drug addicts — especially in Plano we have a lot of drug addicts — have started with marijuana,” said Holway, who stopped short of offering any data to back up his claims when pressed to do so by state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas.
“I’m a firm believer that it’s still a gateway drug,” Holway said.
The gateway concept dates back years and was originated based on looking at what drugs people first used and which ones they eventually consumed. But there’s no hard evidence to back up Holway’s claim.
Experts say users of hard drugs like cocaine or heroin tend to start with whatever is most accessible before moving onto more harmful substances. And while marijuana may precede other illicit drug use, so could alcohol or nicotine — both of which are legal in Texas.
Put simply: Any drug can become a gateway to harder drug use.
“There’s nothing so specific about marijuana that makes it the gateway drug,” said Ruben Baler, a health scientist with the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Most drugs can be addictive and most drugs can perform the function of a gateway drug.”
Claim: “Marijuana has yet to kill a single human being upon consumption”
Joshua Raines, an Army veteran who testified in favor of Moody’s measure said using cannabis allowed him to be “illegally alive” since he’s endured post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia and seizures after serving back-to-back tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
When speaking in front of the Capitol panel, Raines said “marijuana has yet to kill a single human being upon consumption.”
Baler said smoking marijuana can lead to changes in behavior and decision-making, but no one has overdosed on it.
Claim: Teens who smoke regularly will experience a drop in IQ
In 2014, the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas published a paper saying that the “use of marijuana by youth can cause up to an 8 point decline in IQ scores and lead to fewer opportunities for or interest in advancement.”
This mindset dates back to a widely cited 2012 study from Duke University researchers that reported that heavy cannabis use before age 18 was associated with an average IQ drop of 8 points by middle age.
But since the research was released, it’s been heavily criticized — with many scientists, researchers and medical professionals noting it failed to account for things like socioeconomic status. When the study was redone, researchers found no link between marijuana use and a lower IQ.
“They will do a ridiculous study where they take a sample of disadvantaged kids and say, ‘A certain percent of them smoke cannabis and a lot of them don’t go to college,’ and immediately link smoking cannabis to not going to college,” said Peter Grinspoon, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and a board member for the group Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. “A lot of the prohibitionists keep citing this study, but it has been completely debunked.
“And it’s like, these kids are poor and they wouldn’t have been able to go to college anyways. You can’t say smoking cannabis is why they’re not going to college — especially when you’re not factoring in socioeconomic status.”
Claim: Smoking marijuana adversely impacts people with mental illnesses
In that same paper, the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas said people who smoke marijuana face “increased risk of schizophrenia” and paranoia. It also claimed that children exposed to drugs like marijuana could be more prone to depression.
But experts note it’s important to look at each mental illness individually when studying the effects smoking marijuana can have on people who have been diagnosed with depression, paranoia, schizophrenia or a combination of the three, said Jordan Tishler, an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and president of the Association of Cannabis Specialists.
Experts say smoking marijuana can have a disparate impact on people with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia since tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive element in marijuana known as THC — impacts the part of the brain that deals with psychosis and anxiety.
“We are fairly confident that the chronic use of marijuana can exacerbate an underlying condition like schizophrenia or an undiagnosed psychosis,” Baler said.
Tishler added there’s some concern that cannabis could worsen mania in people who have bipolar disorder — something doctors are cautious and conservative about, particularly when prescribing it to people for medicinal purposes.
“What we don’t know yet,” he said, “is if it can provoke a psychotic disorder in somebody who may be prone but wouldn’t otherwise have gotten it.”
As for depression, Tishler said, the data is mixed. His clinical experience, he said, shows low doses of cannabis can be “very helpful” for depression while higher doses can worsen symptoms.
Claim: Decriminalization leads to greater marijuana use
Opponents of Moody’s bill argue that decriminalizing the drug will make it more accessible, which in turn would make marijuana more widely used. Their main concern isn’t adult use, per se, but that decriminalizing the drug could lead to kids using and abusing it.
But according to the National Academy of Sciences, there’s little evidence to support those concerns.
“In fact, some studies have shown rates decreasing in Colorado once it got legalized, which nobody can really explain,” Grinspoon said. “Generally speaking, there’s not been an increase in adolescent use in cannabis.
“Maybe some people think it’s not that interesting now that it’s legal. Who knows?”
Claim: Decriminalizing pot will lead to its full-blown legalization
During a press conference last month where about two dozen Texas police chiefs and sheriffs tried to make the case against loosening the state’s restrictions on marijuana, Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner implied he’s worried that decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in Texas would eventually lead to the state legalizing the drug for recreational use.
But advocates of Moody’s bill have insisted that’s not the case. Instead, they’ve said decriminalizing small amounts of the drug can save the state money and prevent 18-year-olds caught with $5 worth of marijuana from paying the consequences 30 years later.
“We’re not asking you to legalize [marijuana]. What we’re asking you to do is to make a rational decision here,” said David Sloane, a criminal defense attorney from Fort Worth, who testified in support of Moody’s bill. “It’s insane for me to come in here asking you to reduce the penalties on this. It’s going to put me out of business.”
Moody, too, has repeatedly tried to assure other lawmakers that his bill isn’t “legalization or medical expansion.” Selling marijuana would still be a crime. Possession of more than an ounce would still be a crime. Driving while under the influence would still be a crime, he said.
“A civil penalty system keeps people accountable but employable,” he said. “It allows us to focus our scarce resources on much more serious crimes.”