Gateway Theory: The Big Lie that Won’t Die

A black and white still from the 1930s movie "Reefer Madness" shows a man smoking marijuana and going insane.

Some myths just refuse to die. Such is the case with the persistent misinformation about cannabis being a “gateway” to other drugs; it isn’t true, but prohibitionists are still spreading the lie.


State tax collectors say that more than $230 million worth of legal marijuana was sold in Los Angeles County last year: LA is the most populous county in the country’s most populous state, so it stands to reason that it also has the most cannabis business of any place in California.

And it does — again, by a large measure.

Now that recreational cannabis is legal in California, Los Angeles will likely become the top destination for marijuana-seeking visitors to the state when sales begin sometime next year.

And why not? Go to Hollywood, walk around Venice Beach, and wrap up the afternoon at a weed dispensary. Just look at Colorado, with more than $1.3 billion dollars of weed sold last year, with about half the population of just LA county. Jobs, tax money, revenue! These are the things that usually make a politician go to sleep with a smile on his face.

But that doesn’t mean Mark Ridley-Thomas — chair of the Board of Supervisors in Los Angeles County — has to like it. As a matter of fact, as the self-described “card-carrying progressive” declares in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times this week, he’s not sure if he likes it at all:

“It is the will of the voters, yet I remain concerned about the impact that recreational/non-medical cannabis commerce could have on the health and safety of neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles County.”

What’s giving him pause? Among other classic canards, he dusts off the good old gateway theory.

In justifying why he’s reluctant to end the illicit market and start capturing tax revenue, Ridley-Thomas gives a rundown of every cherry-picked statistic that anti-legalization zealots trot out whenever anyone makes the mistake of asking; six percent of pregnant women in Colorado reported using marijuana, five percent of high school students say they smoke weed every day, traffic fatalities where marijuana was present are on the rise.

Left unsaid are the inconvenient facts that, in the age of marijuana legalization, teen use of all drugs is at an all-time low, according to the National Institutes on Drug Abuse, and that there’s not yet been any nexus between marijuana detected in a fatal crash and marijuana intoxication, since weed metabolites are found in the body long after the psychoactive effects have worn off.

But according to Ridley-Thomas, “the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has found that early and regular marijuana use is associated with use of other illicit drugs, including cocaine, hallucinogens, prescription opioids and heroin.”

But does it? Ridley-Thomas doesn’t identify the finding in question. A web search of the LA DPH’s reports does turn up a 2015 presentation, in which the county’s interim health director declares that “it is undeniable that the commercialization of marijuana and marijuana products could have detrimental effects on the health, safety, and well-being of our communities.”

Cities and counties don’t have the resources to conduct their own studies. Such facts, whenever they are posited, come from researchers. In America, the top authority on substance abuse is the federal government’s NIDA.

But, as NIDA reports on its website, “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder substances.’”

A far more accurate indicator of drug-seeking patterns are “social conditions,” like poverty, a broken home, abuse and/or trauma. As it happens, adolescents who smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol are also likely to lead to other substances.

“Daily use of any substance, including marijuana, places individuals at high risk for addiction,” Samuel Ball, president and CEO of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, told CNN.

In short, there’s nothing about cannabis that poses a unique risk to anyone.

In any case, NIDA declares that gateway theory is just that — a theory — and far from established science. But, since politicians’ op-eds are not peer-reviewed studies, junk science and bunk arguments get printed.

Gateway theory isn’t even the worst of it.

“Let’s be clear that gangs and cartels operate outside regulation, and dismantling this illegal market operating within saturated communities will be daunting,” Ridley-Thomas continued.

This is the most disingenuous statement of all — and the clearest argument yet for a regulated, legal marketplace. A market cannot exist if there is no demand. There is demand for black-market marijuana only if there’s no legal alternative.

Most everyone not in elected office, in law enforcement, or in the pharmaceutical industry is able to see this, one of the simplest of economic theories — Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, sees it.

So what’s up with Mark Ridley-Thomas?

Running for supervisor in LA requires a fair bit of money. According to campaign finance disclosure forms, Ridley-Thomas is bankrolled mostly by LA-area entertainment executives, attorneys, real-estate investors, and other respectable professionals. But he also receives money from organized labor, including law-enforcement interests like the probation officers’ union. That could explain why he’s working so hard to find any reason at all, no matter how spurious, to slow down the legalization train.

But marijuana money has also helped Ridley-Thomas get elected. His official campaign committee took contributions from the United Food and Commercial Workers, the labor union working to organize cannabis dispensaries. And a PAC that supports the politician accepted more than $12,000 from Ghost Group, the venture-capital firm set up by Justin Hartfield, co-founder of Weedmaps, the “Yelp for marijuana” and one of the biggest names in corporate cannabis.

On the one hand, it could be see as a sign of independence that Ridley-Thomas will accept contributions from sources involved in the marijuana industry before dumping all over it. On the other, it would be nice if he could bother to find a legitimate argument when doing it.

TELL US, do you believe in the gateway theory?

Chris Roberts has written about medical cannabis, drug policy, and legalization ever since spending a few months in Humboldt County in 2009, with bylines for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, and SF Weekly. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cbloggy.

3 Comments

  1. A Brady

    July 13, 2017 at 10:07 am

    This couldn’t have been more timely. The City of Redding will hold a community forum tomorrow afternoon and several of the city council have parroted the “zealot” remarks above. I hope it is OK that I have taken notes from your counter-points and will use several of them tomorrow.

  2. Jack Elam

    July 12, 2017 at 10:20 pm

    The gateway theory is true, but it is also a lie. The lie is that it has been misapplied to marijuana as a drug. The truth is that it does apply to the longstanding ambiguous definition of the “other substance” called marijuana. That definition is a dangerous gateway law which creates an addiction that frequently leads to the use of harsher laws. We see its ill effects on us everyday in the news. Witness the mandatory minimum sentences, civil asset forfeitures, and nobilled police murders of cannabis users.

    Luckily, many States have taken steps to overcome such addiction. Now, we must also contact our members of Congress to help them overcome the debilitating effects of their addiction, and to restore their respect for our Constitution. We see its ill effects on them everyday in the news. Witness the voter suppression, outrageous gerrymandering, steady drip of Russian contacts, and attempts to recharge the Drug War.

    There is a simple reform of that definition that we can propose to them which will help them to overcome such ill effects: “The term ‘marijuana’ means all parts of the smoke produced by the combustion of the plant Cannabis sativa L. which is, as are the viable seeds of such plant, prohibited to be grow by or sold by any publicly traded corporation or subsidiary company.”

    For their own good, as well as the good of the People, let’s contact the members of Congress to reform their definition of marijuana. They will, perhaps grudgingly, but eventually, thank us for it.

  3. Robert Chase

    July 12, 2017 at 9:03 am

    Reactionary — the theme of the article is one of our enemies’ talking points! The only way we will ever be able to legalize cannabis is if people who use pull themselves up by their bootstraps, make good some of their abject deficiencies in their understanding of civics and politics, organize, elect candidates to office, and change the laws. Cannabis is still up to a level 1 drug felony in Colorado, all sales across most of the State are felonies, and growing just seven (7) plants for personal use inside one’s own home is a felony. Arrests are up, but the data from 2015 is still not available — the last report covered 2012-2014 and showed large declines in arrests and cases before the courts, but Colorado’s prohibitionist Gov. Hack and the General Assembly of Idiots has been passing more and more criminal penalties for cannabis into law. Of course you don’t believe me — an unholy alliance between the national drug policy organizations, the Establishment, its media, and the foul lobbyists for the so-called “industry” has repeated the lie that “Colorado legalized marijuana [sic] so many times that people cannot conceive of the truth, that State and local governments in Colorado have been working full time to suppress cannabis ever since Amendment 64 passed — Colorado’s many felonies for cannabis are to be found in C.R.S. 18-18-406.

    P.S. Your choice of a picture of Jack from Reefer Madness to accompany this article is inapt; Jack didn’t go on to take more dangerous drugs — “marihuana [sic]” alone caused him to be committed to an asylum for the criminally insane.

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