Marijuana Is Not a Gateway Drug, So Why Do Leading Republicans and Democrats Say Otherwise?

Politicians such as Chris Christie and Debbie Wasserman Schultz have long been against marijuana law reform.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) speaks during a news briefing in 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, said it was time for Romney to man up in the heated presidential race.

Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie and Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz may be on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but they share a mutual antipathy for marijuana law reform.

As New Jersey governor, Christie has spent years undermining the state’s beleaguered medical cannabis program. As a presidential candidate, Christie has upped the ante, promising to roll back voter-approved legalization laws in states like Colorado and Oregon. “I will crack down [on states where marijuana sales are legal] and not permit it,” Christie has said, adding on numerous occasions that his opposition to pot stems from his belief that it is a “destructive…gateway drug…that causes our children…to use other drugs.”

Likewise, as a member of Congress, Schultz has a long history of voting in favor of continued cannabis criminalization and repression. She is one of a handful of Democrats who voted in opposition to an amendment that sought to permit VA doctors to recommend cannabis therapy to veterans in states that already permit the plant’s medical use. Increasing legal access to a “mind altering substance” like marijuana will lead more people to “travel down the path toward using more drugs,” Wasserman-Schultz argues.


Both politicians' positions are not only out of touch with public opinion, they are equally out of touch with the available science, which has long dismissed the notion that cannabis in any way primes the brain toward experimentation with other illicit substances.

“There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other drugs,” authors of the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine concluded nearly two decades ago. Shortly thereafter, a report issued by the RAND Corporation, titled "Reassessing the Marijuana Gateway Effect,” affirmed, “[M]arijuana has no causal influence over hard drug initiation.” Authors concluded: "While the gateway theory has enjoyed popular acceptance, scientists have always had their doubts. Our study shows that these doubts are justified."

Despite the recent rise in adult use of marijuana in past years, nationwide use of most other illicit substances, particularly cocaine, has fallen dramatically. Moreover, surveys of legal cannabis consumers now consistently report that they substitute pot in place of other psychoactive substances, specifically alcohol and prescription pharmaceuticals like opioids – behavior that indicates the herb is more often than not consumed as an exit drug rather than a gateway to substance abuse. Recent studies show that cannabis is associated with more favorable outcomes among opioid-dependent people seeking outpatient treatment. Additionally, states that permit patient use and access to medicinal marijuana report lower rates of opiate abuse and mortality as compared to states that continue to prohibit the plant.

As for the longstanding belief that cannabis use sequentially precedes the use of other illicit substances, newly published research refutes this claim as well. Writing this month in the Journal of School Health, investigators at Texas A&M University and the University of Florida, reported that the use of alcohol and tobacco typically precedes cannabis exposure in polydrug consuming subjects. The study concludes, “[A]lcohol was the most widely used substance among respondents, initiated earliest, and also the first substance most commonly used in the progression of substance use.”

But don’t expect these latest findings to sway the rhetoric spewed by pot-hating pols like Christie and Schultz. As governor, Christie signed legislation to stimulate increased hard liquor production in the Garden State, which is also home to 14 of the world’s 20 largest pharmaceutical companies. Similarly, the DNC chair is no stranger to coddling up to Big Booze. Presently, representatives of the beer and wine industry rank as the fifth largest donor to Wasserman-Schultz’s re-election campaign. Until leading politicians wean themselves off booze, expect them to keep maligning pot.

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Paul Armentano is the deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) and serves as a senior policy advisor for Freedom Leaf, Inc. He is the co-author of the book, Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2013).