A Response to Joe Biden: Marijuana Is Not A Gateway Drug

2020 Presidential candidate and Democrat frontrunner Joe Biden has recently come under fire for reviving the age-old marijuana 'Gateway Theory.'

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.
  • The U.S. spent $20bn in 2013 to enforce cannabis laws
  • 95% of marijuana users don't develop an opioid problem
  • Marijuana use decreased among youths in states where cannabis was legalized
  • Since legalizing cannabis, Colorado has brought in $1bn in state tax revenue
  • States which legalize cannabis experience a decrease in opioid mortalities and prescriptions

As we reach the end of 2019 and move toward 2020, Democrats are beginning to make their pitches for why they should run the country instead of giving President Donald Trump another 4-year term. Each candidate is highlighting their stances on hot button issues like immigration, healthcare, taxes, and of course, drug law.

Though when it comes to drug law reform, one presidential contender has found himself in disagreement with every single one of his Democratic Allies. That candidate is Joe Biden.

Biden, a frontrunner for the Democrat party and the previous Vice President under Barack Obama, has recently come under fire for stating that "there is not nearly been enough evidence…as to whether or not [cannabis] is a gateway drug."

While every other Democratic candidate has supported federal marijuana legalization, only Biden has taken the opposite approach in saying that "nationally, I'm not prepared to support legalization."

So just how accurate are Biden's fears that marijuana is a "gateway drug?"

Let's take a look.

The Gateway Theory

Popularized by Robert DuPont in the 80's during the Reagan presidency's 'War on Drugs,' the Gateway Theory suggests that those who smoke cannabis would develop an appetite for further illicit substances, and spiral down a path of harder and harder drugs.

The theory comes largely from a guide DuPont published entitled 'Getting Tough on Gateway Drugs: A Guide for the Family' which outlined the consistency between those who used hard drugs, and their likelihood to have tried marijuana.

DuPont believed that marijuana use would "prime" the brain for harder drugs, and potentially increased the probability that marijuana smokers would go on to use heroin. The theory couldn't have come at a better time for those that opposed the plant, with the War on Drugs ramping up and Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign running alongside it – which urged individuals to reject all drugs.

And, depending on who you asked and how you ask them, the Gateway Theory could sound anywhere from reasonable to outlandish.

The truth is yes, most hard drug users will likely have tried marijuana prior to most illicit drugs. Though by the same token, they also are likely to have consumed tobacco, alcohol, sugar, and a host of other substances.

According to the CDC, however, "the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, "harder" substances." For the majority of cannabis smokers, consuming harder drugs never crosses their minds.

US Cannabis Industry

Legalization Is The Answer

According to a study posted on Psychology Today, "even among the heaviest marijuana users, approximately 95 percent did not seem to have opioid-related issues."

Meanwhile, as a result of Nixon's infamous War on Drugs in the 70s, male incarceration rates skyrocketed, with a total of 663,367 arrests involving marijuana in 2018 alone. Of those arrests, 92% were for the simple crime of possession.

So while only 5% of marijuana users will go on to use harder drugs, 100% of those found in possession of the drug have had to either pay a fine, go to jail, get a criminal record, or all of the above. And to enforce these cannabis laws, the price tag isn't negligible either. The U.S. alone was estimated to be spending up to $20bn a year as recently as 2013 to arrest cannabis criminals.

The government was spending up to $20bn to arrest over half a million people each year, all under the assumption that cannabis is bad, and that locking people up will stop people using the plant.

The assumption behind the war on weed is that cannabis use is inherently bad and that locking people up will stop them from using the plant.

Though in states that have legalized cannabis, reported usage of the plant hasn't spiked and has, in fact, decreased among those under 18 years of age.

The Exit Drug

While Joe Biden is suggesting that there may be a link between cannabis use and the development of other, harder drug problems, many are beginning to argue to the opposite effect; that cannabis use helps minimize opioid misuse.

In a study that analyzed 5601 research paper abstracts, it was found that legalizing marijuana for medical resulted in an 8% reduction in opioid overdose mortality and a 7% reduction in prescription opioids dispensed. Furthermore, legalizing marijuana for recreational use was associated with an additional 7% reduction in opioid overdose mortality in Colorado and a 6% reduction in opioid prescriptions.

Another study found that hospitalization rates for opioid painkiller dependence and abuse dropped on average 23 percent in states after marijuana was permitted for medicinal purposes, while opioid overdoses dropped 13 percent on average.

Reducing opioid use in America should be of the utmost importance, as in 2017, 1.7 million Americans reported suffering from substance misuse issues relating to prescription opiates.

And if we're talking about the Gateway Theory, studies have shown that 70% of heroin users had previously first misused opioid prescriptions.

Similarly, athletes often find themselves misusing opioids, as their jobs require intense physical activity, often leads to injury, which often leads to a prescription of opiates. A Study performed by Washington University's School of Medicine found that 7% of NFL athletes had misused opioid prescription painkillers, a rate nearly four times higher than the general public.

In legalizing cannabis, particularly for medicinal use, you open up an alternative to opioids for doctors that they can prescribe to their suffering patients without such high risks of abuse and fatality.

A Libertarian Case

Let's ignore the billions of tax dollars that the U.S. government receives from marijuana tax revenue. Let's also ignore the billions the government saves from not having to use so much expenditure criminalizing petty possession crimes. Forget that cannabis is still federally considered to have"no currently accepted medical use," despite being legal for medicinal purposes in 33 states and having the potential to reduce opioid addictions.

Forget about all of this, because it shouldn't be relevant to the argument.

What Joe Biden doesn't realize is that the government shouldn't get to decide what substances it's citizens choose to ingest. And if the government's role was to police harmful substances, why then is there a prescription pill epidemic, caused by drugs supported by the FDA?

Why then are there a quarter of a million fast-food establishments in the U.S., when over 25% of citizens are suffering from obesity in 33 U.S. states? Given that there were over 1,500 knife-related murders in 2018, is the government also considering the banning of knives?

The obvious answer is no, the government isn't planning to ban knives, prescription pills or fast food, nor should they.

Each of these has benefits and harms, as do most substances, objects and life choices, and it's up to the individual to decide which path they take.

And yet when it comes to cannabis, people like Joe Biden, and most recently billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who both seek to become the President of the United States, continue to tell the public that the government knows what's best – and if you disagree, prepare to face penalties.

Well, I believe it was best articulated by the late author and cannabis enthusiast Terence Mckenna:

"If the words 'lifeliberty, and the pursuit of happiness' don't include the right to experiment with your own consciousness then the Declaration of Independence isn't worth the hemp it was written on."

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Louis O'Neill
Louis O'Neill

Louis is a writer based in Sydney with a focus on social and political issues. Having interviewed local politicians and entrepreneurs, Louis now focuses on cannabis culture, legislation & reform.

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