Gateway Drug? The Stigma Behind Cannabis Consumption

Cannabis has long been viewed as a “gateway drug” in the eyes of society. The theory is based on the observation that people who use more serious drugs, such as cocaine or heroin, often report having used cannabis first.

However, over the years there has been little evidence found to support this claim. Instead, a recent study found evidence that may be able to leave the stigma of the cannabis gateway drug in the past. Keep reading to learn how cannabis received its notorious nickname and what modern day science is discovering about the plant.

Birth of the “Gateway Drug”

The Jazz Era

cannabis in the jazz era

The concept of cannabis as a "gateway drug" has its roots in the early days of drug prohibition in the United States. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, marijuana was introduced to the American public largely through Mexican immigrants and African American jazz musicians. At the same time, the use of opiates and cocaine was also on the rise, with most users consuming both cannabis and the harder substances.

In response to these trends, the government and various advocacy groups began to campaign against marijuana use, claiming that it was a dangerous drug that served as a "gateway" to the use of harder drugs. This narrative was adopted by many in the media and became widely accepted, creating the era known as “Reefer Madness”.

Reefer Madness

The "Reefer Madness" era refers to the period in American history in the late 1930s and early 1940s when anti-marijuana propaganda was at its peak. The term "Reefer Madness" comes from the 1936 film of the same name, which was produced by a church group and intended to scare the public about the dangers of marijuana use.

The Reefer Madness era was marked by exaggerated and sensationalist claims about the effects of marijuana use, which were often based on limited or inaccurate scientific evidence. Despite this, the Reefer Madness message was widely accepted and helped to fuel the public's fear of marijuana and to lay the groundwork for the criminalization of drug use.

Today, the Reefer Madness era is widely recognized as a dark chapter in American history, characterized by misinformation, propaganda, and the criminalization of a substance that is now widely accepted and legalized in many parts of the world.

The War on Drugs

The "war on drugs" that was launched in the United States in the 1970s was a continuation of the fear mongering that encompassed the era of “Reefer Madness”. The campaign had a profound impact on the perception and regulation of cannabis, as well as on the lives of those who use it.

As part of the broader anti-drug efforts, the government increased its enforcement efforts against marijuana use and distribution, and strengthened penalties for drug-related crimes. This led to a significant increase in arrests and incarceration rates, particularly among people of color and those from low-income communities.

The war on drugs also helped to perpetuate the idea of marijuana as a "gateway drug" and a dangerous substance that posed a threat to public health and safety. This narrative was used to justify the criminalization of marijuana use and to promote anti-drug campaigns that aimed to discourage its use.

The consequences of the war on drugs for those who use cannabis were significant. Many individuals faced criminal charges, imprisonment, and a lifelong criminal record, which can have far-reaching consequences for their employment, housing, and educational opportunities. The war on drugs also led to the closure of many medical marijuana dispensaries, which had been providing access to the drug for those with serious medical conditions.

Just Say NO

legalization of recreational cannabis

The "Just Say No" campaign was an anti-drug education program launched in the United States in the 1980s as part of the broader war on drugs. The campaign was founded by Nancy Reagan, the wife of President Ronald Reagan, and aimed to discourage young people from using drugs, including marijuana, by promoting a message of drug abstinence.

The "Just Say No" campaign was part of a broader effort to criminalize drug use and to promote anti-drug campaigns that aimed to discourage drug use. While the campaign was well-intentioned and intended to protect young people from the dangers of drugs, it was criticized by some for its simplistic and one-dimensional approach to a complex issue.

Throughout all the time periods mentioned above, there has never been conclusive evidence stating that cannabis is a gateway drug. Though there is data showing many hard drug users used cannabis in the past, it is important to note that most people who use cannabis do not go on to use other drugs, and the vast majority of people who use other drugs have not used cannabis before. Furthermore, there are many factors that can influence an individual's likelihood of using drugs, including their personal circumstances, environment, and access to drugs.

Modern Day Medicine

In the 1990s, attitudes towards cannabis in the United States were in a state of transition. On the one hand, there was growing support for the legalization of medical marijuana, as more and more states began to recognize the therapeutic benefits of the drug for patients with serious medical conditions. On the other hand, there was also growing concern about the increasing use of cannabis and its potential health and social consequences.

Medical Cannabis

legalization of medical cannabis

In the early 1990s, a number of states, including California and Arizona, passed legislation to legalize medical marijuana, despite opposition from the federal government. These efforts reflected a growing recognition of the therapeutic benefits of the drug and a growing awareness of the need for alternative treatments for patients with serious medical conditions.

At the same time, there was also growing concern about the increasing use of cannabis among young people, as the concerns and craze from the previous decades held onto the older generation. The federal government responded to these concerns by launching a new round of anti-drug campaigns and by increasing enforcement efforts to combat drug use and trafficking.

Recreational Cannabis

As more and more states legalized medical cannabis, they began to look toward the future and the idea of cannabis for all. This is when, once again, the idea of a “gateway drug” was presented as some Americans were worried that the legalization of recreational cannabis would create a larger pathway to harder drugs. 

The decades that felt so far away with the legalization of medical cannabis were fastly making a comeback as the campaigns for, and against, recreational cannabis began. However, the scare tactics seem to be losing their grip as today there are 37 states who have legalized medical cannabis and 21 who have legalized recreational cannabis as well.

Gateway to Benefits, Not Drugs

cannabis is not a gateway drug

The 2010s and now 2020s are seeing a boom in research and published findings regarding the cannabis plant and its relation, or not, to a multitude of diseases, conditions, and inner body workings. Most of the published studies seem to point in the direction that distances cannabis from its sordid media past. 

A study published last May, looked to examine if the legalization of nonmedical cannabis had any impact on the use of alcohol, nicotine, and non-prescribed pain relievers in adults aged 18-25 in Washington State. It was also noted how often the participants consumed cannabis, i.e. non-user, infrequent, or frequent. 

The study found almost the exact opposite of what those from the “Reefer Madness'' era thought. According to the study the legalization of nonmedical cannabis coincided with decreases in alcohol and cigarette use and pain reliever misuse, instead of the feared gateway to the bottom narrative.

A second study published in January of 2023, also supports the view that cannabis is not a “gateway drug”. The researchers from the University of Colorado looked to study the relationship between cannabis legalization and an increase in substance use disorders or the increased use of illicit drugs.

Once again, no relationship between cannabis and illicit drug use was found. Instead, much like the study in Washington, the researchers found that cannabis use leads to a decrease in alcohol use disorder.

Final Answer

In these modern times studies are beginning to show the fears passed down from “Reefer Madness” and “Just Say No” have no scientific evidence to be supported. And as more and more states legalize the plant for recreational use, and as the public becomes more familiar with the drug and its effects, many of the concerns about the impact of cannabis legalization are beginning to diminish.

While the “gateway drug” theory surrounding cannabis may never fully die out, the future for cannabis as a respected substance is looking slightly brighter.

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