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Photo of Matt M. McClenahen
Photo of Matt M. McClenahen

Medical Marijuana Turns “Gateway Drug” Argument on its Head

by | Jul 13, 2018 | Marijuana

The old notion that marijuana is a “gateway drug” has been turned on its head by Pennsylvania’s recent decision allow medical marijuana for opiate addicts seeking to break free of dangerous and addictive drugs like heroin. As a criminal defense attorney, I have had many clients switch to marijuana as they tried to escape enslavement to opiates. Like any logical and rational person, I believe that if one is using marijuana instead of heroin, it is an improvement! But some probation officers and judges were not in agreement, and they used to have the law on their side. For too long, recovering opiate addicts would be thrown jail for smoking marijuana in violation of a zero-tolerance approach to illegal drug use while on probation. Medicinal-Marijuana.jpg
Pennsylvania’s new, enlightened approach is especially noteworthy to those of us well-versed in the history of American drug policy. When imperial, scientific evidence showed that marijuana was not the “assassin of youth” portrayed by “Reefer Madness” era prohibitionists like Penn State’s own Harry J. Anslinger, Drug War hawks adopted the “gateway drug” argument to justify continued cannabis prohibition. The long-discredited gateway drug argument posits that those who smoke marijuana would eventually move on to hard drugs like heroin, because most heroin addicts smoked marijuana before they ever tried heroin.
The Gateway Drug fallacy is a classic example of correlation not equaling causation. Only a tiny percentage of marijuana users have ever gone on to use heroin. Likewise, most heroin addicts also smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol before ever trying heroin, but these drugs, which are certainly more harmful and more addictive than cannabis, were conveniently omitted from the “gateway drug” argument.
Now, Pennsylvania has legally recognized marijuana as a “gateway drug” away from and not into opiate addition. Although there is medical research in support of this policy change, it is still a bold move, when one considers that there are still a few dinosaurs around in positions of power like US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who cling to the notion that marijuana has no medicinal value and leads to hard drug abuse.
I suspect that some people who use marijuana as a bridge away from opiates may eventually stop using marijuana and achieve full sobriety. Others may continue to smoke marijuana the rest of their lives as a buffer against relapse into opiate addiction. Either scenario is preferable to continued opiate addiction.
Matt McClenahen is a criminal defense lawyer in State College, PA, home of Penn State University. He is a member of the NORML Legal Committee.

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