The concept of gateway drugs has been around for several decades. In fact, the idea was introduced exactly 40 years ago. In 1975, Denise Kandel, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University, coined the term “gateway drug.” What many don’t know: Despite adoption by anti-cannabis prohibitionists, Kandel was actually referring to nicotine.
Promoted by Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980s and modern day politicians like Chris Christie — who recently called marijuana both a gateway drug and highly addictive — the idea that use of cannabis often leads to consumption of harder drugs has been debated for decades.
Black Market Effect
Unfortunately, there is some credence to the gateway theory. Instead of being caused by the mere use of cannabis, however, support for the gateway theory arises instead from the black market caused by prohibition. Where illegal and not available via safe access, users wanting simply to obtain cannabis must obviously seek it from underground dealers. Often, these dealers also sell harder drugs, like cocaine, meth, or heroin. With tens of millions of people purchasing cannabis on the black market in the majority of states where it remains illegal, the mere exposure of marijuana consumers to harder drugs may convince a small percentage to actually experiment with these highly addictive substances.
Sociology professor Miriam Boeri, in a recent article entitled Why are Politicians Still Referring to Marijuana as a Gateway Drug?, argues that poverty, social environment, association with hard drug users, and mental illness are actually much better predictors of hard drug use than the mere consumption of marijuana. Boeri wrote:
“Crime has not increased in states that have legalized marijuana; it’s actually gone down. Surprisingly, opiate overdose deaths have gone down as well. If anything, marijuana can work as a gateway out of hard drug use.”
Nicotine is the Gatekeeper
In fact, it seems that cigarettes and, more specifically, nicotine, are the real culprits in gateway exposure. In a recent study, Kandel and her husband, Eric Kandel (a Nobel Prize-winning neurologist), discovered scientific evidence of nicotine’s role in hard drug addiction. The researchers concluded:
“Nicotine acts as a gateway drug on the brain, and this effect is likely to occur whether the exposure is from smoking tobacco, passive tobacco smoke, or e-cigarettes.”
The next time someone mentions gateway drugs, don’t think of cannabis. Instead, look toward the common tobacco cigarette. It seems the real culprit has been right under our noses all along….