Countering a basic principle of American anti-drug policies, an independent US study concluded on Monday that marijuana use does not lead teenagers to experiment with hard drugs like heroin or cocaine.
The study by the private, nonprofit RAND Drug Policy Research Center rebutted the theory that marijuana acts as a so-called gateway drug to more harmful narcotics, a key argument against legalizing pot in the United States.
The researchers did not advocate easing restrictions on marijuana, but questioned the focus on this substance in drug control efforts.
Using data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse between 1982 and 1994, the study concluded teenagers who took hard drugs were predisposed to do so whether they tried marijuana first or not.
“Kids get their first opportunity to use marijuana years before they get their first exposure to hard drugs,” said Andrew Morral, lead author of the RAND study.
“Marijuana is not a gateway drug. It’s just the first thing kids often come across,” he explained.
Morral said 50% of US teenagers had access to marijuana by the age of 16, while the majority had no exposure to cocaine, heroin or hallucinogens until they were 20.
The study, published in the British journal Addiction, does not advocate legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, which has been linked to side effects including short-term memory loss.
But given limited resources, Morral said the US government should reconsider the prominence of marijuana in its much-publicized “war on drugs.”
“To a certain extent, we are diverting resources away from hard drug problems,” he said. “Spending money on marijuana control may not be having downstream consequences on the use of hard drugs.”
Researchers say predisposition to drug use has been linked to genetic factors and one’s environment, including family dynamics and the availability of drugs in the neighborhood.