Will Marijuana Legalization Have a ‘Gateway’ Effect?

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Photo by Elvert Barnes

Marijuana’s reputation as a gateway drug—a drug whose use almost inevitably leads to the use of other, stronger, harder drugs—has been largely (though not completely) discredited.

But will the legalization of marijuana lead to the legalization of other, stronger, harder drugs? If it does, is that a good or bad thing?

It doesn’t take an excess of optimism to conclude that soon the entire continent of North America may be weed-friendly.

On Nov. 6, Michigan voters approved a ballot proposal legalizing recreational marijuana, and it has already gone into partial effect. In Michigan, it is now legal to grow up to 12 marijuana plants at home, to possess up to 10 ounces of marijuana, and to carry (though not smoke in public) 2.5 ounces if you are at least 21 years old.

The state (which is mostly opposed to marijuana legalization) has until Dec. 6, 2019 “to form regulations and make applications available for recreational marijuana businesses,” and up to another year to expand sales beyond existing medical marijuana dispensaries.

Two more states (Missouri and Utah) voted to permit medical marijuana only. That makes 32 medical marijuana states, 10 of which also permit recreational use.

More than one-fifth of the U.S. population—about 73 million people—now live in one of the 10 states (plus the District of Columbia) where recreational marijuana use is now legal to some extent.

That’s more than twice the population of Canada (35 million), where recreational marijuana became legal on Oct. 17. Canada was only the second nation in the world, after Uruguay, to enact such legislation.

Despite predictions of calamity, the major problem so far has been marijuana shortages.

The number of people in North America who can enjoy legal recreational marijuana may have doubled Oct. 31 when Mexico’s Supreme Court ruled that “the effects caused by marijuana do not justify an absolute prohibition on its consumption.”

That in effect decriminalized marijuana. (Under the country’s legal system, once the Supreme Court reaches a similar decision in five separate cases, the standard set by the rulings applies to the country’s entire court system.)

So Mexico’s 119 million citizens (the adults anyway) can now light up, vape, eat or otherwise engage in marijuana consumption. That doesn’t make it legal for you to sell it to or buy it from anyone.

A senator in Mexico has introduced legislation to officially confirm the ruling making recreational marijuana legal. According to World Politics Review, Mexico’s new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador favors legalization, and plans to hold a public referendum on how and whether to legalize marijuana within his first three years in office.

With the U.S. likely to formalize the laissez-faire attitude towards state legalization at the federal level—in June, President Donald Trump said he, would “probably” sign the STATES (Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States) Act—North America could in effect become the first continent with legal recreational marijuana.

If marijuana becomes completely legal to the south and the north of us, the fear of missing out on those legal marijuana tax revenues may be enough to turn the tide.

On the other hand, there are still a couple of big stumbling blocks, not least of which is the U.S. Senate—which may find it politically unacceptable to make marijuana use more acceptable in any way. That also includes the regulatory agencies (the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration) which seem more interested in criminalizing kratom than legalizing cannabis.

Elsewhere, South Africa, Georgia (the Caucasus), China, and several other Asian nations also are considering legalization, mostly for medical marijuana. Even the United Nations’ World Health Organization is reviewing marijuana’s status as a controlled substance.

Mexico may go even further. There is a movement afoot to also legalize the medical use of opium to relieve pain and to further hurt the illegal drug traffickers who profit off opium-derived heroin.

Opium was brought to the U.S. by Chinese workers in the mid-19th century, then demonized during the anti-Chinese wave of the late 1870s-early 1880s, and made illegal by the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914. Subsequently—in a pattern repeated following other attempts to prohibit or restrict substances—American addicts resorted to stronger opiates such as codeine, morphine, and heroin.

In a contest over the dangers of opium vs weed, opium is the clear winner. Despite marijuana’s Schedule 1 placement, it’s not a deadly drug. No one has ever died directly due to an overdose of marijuana alone. Opium itself is not as deadly as other opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl.

Then again, there’s even a movement to legalize and regulate heroin so that it will be of a known strength and purity (not laced with fentanyl) that is traced to marijuana’s legalization success. And fentanyl is legal for some conditions.

Opium isn’t the only drug receiving similar consideration. So are so-called “psychedelic”, hallucinogenic, or psychotropic drugs.

Oregon is considering a voters ballot initiative to legalize therapeutic uses of psilocybin, the ingredient in psychedelic or “magic” mushrooms. Like marijuana, it is illegal Schedule 1 drugs under the US federal Controlled Substances Act. Likewise, it and the party drug MDMA (Ecstasy) have been celebrated as “breakthrough therapy” for depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other psychological illnesses.

Digital tech workers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley have touted the benefits of microdosing LSD—small doses that produce no hallucinogenic effects—for creativity and treatment of depression although it, too, is a Schedule 1 drug. A placebo-controlled study is now underway in London.

Ibogaine and other psychedelics for the treatment—maybe cure—of addiction is similarly stymied by being confined to Schedule 1. Proponents—who have been around since the 1960s—say that one “trip” can remove addiction and the desire to use drugs again. Ibogaine is only legal in New Zealand, Brazil, and South Africa.

Meanwhile, kratom—an herbal substance related to coffee—is facing renewed criminalization by the FDA and DEA. Heretofore its status has been unclear. It is marketed as a “dietary supplement”, a class of product that “can go to market without any safety, purity, or quality testing by the FDA”.

Some users and scientists say kratom has opioid-like pain relief properties that are safer (no respiratory depression) than opioids. They want it regulated as a dietary supplement, not banned. It is is not mentioned at all by the United Nations Drug Conventions or US law, though it is controlled in several European Union and Asian nations, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

Prohibition doesn’t stop drug use. It only prevents the research evidence of their therapeutic effects that drug legalization opponents claim is lacking, as well as making the substances less safe and turning otherwise law-abiding citizens into criminals. It also can be politically motivated.

Stephen Bitsoli

Stephen Bitsoli

While many people use marijuana because they enjoy it, not for its medical benefits, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have medical benefits, or that such enjoyment is necessarily a bad thing.

Marijuana legalization is long overdue, as is serious research into and consideration of other pharmacological solutions. If that legalization is a bellwether for more scientific and apolitical research, that is a good thing.

Stephen Bitsoli, a Michigan-based freelancer, writes about addiction treatment, politics, history, and related matters for several blogs. A lifelong avid reader, he loves learning and sharing what he’s learned. Readers’ comments are welcome.

One thought on “Will Marijuana Legalization Have a ‘Gateway’ Effect?

  1. Marijuana consumers deserve and demand equal rights and protections under our laws that are currently afforded to the drinkers of far more dangerous and deadly, yet perfectly legal, widely accepted, endlessly advertised and even glorified as an All-American pastime, alcohol.

    Plain and simple! Legalize Nationwide!

    The “Gateway Myth” has been proven false over and over again. Correlation doesn’t equal causation.If prohibitionists really want to protect families from a drug proven to destroy lives and families, then they should be up in arms, protesting the legality of booze.Alcohol is the drug that causes the most traffic fatalities, domestic violence, and overall detriment to society by a huge landslide. More so than all other drugs, combined. Why doesn’t that concern you prohibitionists even more? It should. [this post has been condensed for space]

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