For years Americans have been told that marijuana should remain illegal because it is the ultimate “gateway” drug – that is, the drug that most often leads to the abuse of other, more potent drugs.
Not so, according to a new study which says alcohol – not marijuana – is the true gateway drug.
Of three drugs or drug-containing substances – alcohol, tobacco and marijuana – the study found that the former, not the latter, led to more drug use.
In examining a nationally representative sample obtained from the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future survey, the study concluded: “Results from the Guttman scale indicated that alcohol represented the ‘gateway’ drug, leading to the use of tobacco, marijuana, and other illicit substances. Moreover, students who used alcohol exhibited a significantly greater likelihood of using both licit and illicit drugs.”
That said, the study concluded “that alcohol should receive primary attention in school-based substance abuse prevention programming, as the use of other substances could be impacted by delaying or preventing alcohol use.
“Therefore, it seems prudent for school and public health officials to focus prevention efforts, policies, and monies, on addressing adolescent alcohol use,” said the study.
Earlier studies point to similar results.
Longstanding tie between alcohol consumption and drug abuse
As early as 1985, for example, a study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescenceconcluded “that students do not use illicit drugs unless they also use alcohol.”
“Since alcohol serves as the gateway to all other drug use, prevention approaches that control and limit alcohol use among adolescents may be warranted,” authors John W. Welte and Grace M. Barnes, both of New York State University at Buffalo, wrote.
A Missouri Western State University study conducted in 2009 found that a majority of subjects examined – 67 percent – went on to smoke marijuana after they had already begun consuming alcohol, not the other way around.
“We found that for our study, the more alcohol someone drinks the more likely they will be to want to smoke marijuana,” wrote the study’s authors.
“Marijuana is called the gateway drug. It is considered the worst drug available because is supposedly causes its users to move on to harder drugs. What people don’t realize is that marijuana use comes after someone is already using alcohol and tobacco,” they wrote.
In 2010 British Prof. David Nutt, the one-time chief drugs adviser to the government, co-authored a report that said alcohol use and abuse in England was more harmful than crack or heroin, when the overall damage they all cause to society are measured.
“Overall, alcohol was the most harmful drug (overall harm score 72), with heroin (55) and crack cocaine (54) in second and third places,” the report, which was published in the journal Lancet, concluded.
Denying the obvious
“Our findings lend support to previous work in the UK and the Netherlands, confirming that the present drug classification systems have little relation to the evidence of harm,” said the report. “They also accord with the conclusions of previous expert reports that aggressively targeting alcohol harms is a valid and necessary public health strategy.”
When released, the authors’ findings ran afoul of the government’s long-standing drug classification system, which have claimed for years that other drugs are more potent.
“Overall, alcohol is the most harmful drug because it’s so widely used,” Nutt told the BBCfollowing publication of his findings
“Crack cocaine is more addictive than alcohol but because alcohol is so widely used there are hundreds of thousands of people who crave alcohol every day, and those people will go to extraordinary lengths to get it,” he said.
Predictably, like its American counterpart likely would, the British government balked at Nutt’s report.
“Our priorities are clear – we want to reduce drug use, crack down on drug-related crime and disorder and help addicts come off drugs for good,” a spokesman from the Home Office sniffed.
The alcohol lobby obviously has deeper pockets.