A weed by any other name smells the same

Big excitement has hit the drug legalization world. A recent RAND Drug Policy Research Center study reported that marijuana may look, act, and smell like a gateway drug to abuse of harder drugs, but that possibly it is not a gateway drug after all.

The marijuana normalizers - as in, "let's make marijuana use normal, or acceptable" - loved it; so did some of the press. Both were quick to misportray the study, so much so that the author of the study himself was dismayed.

Andrew Morral of RAND believes he did everything he could to explain he did not disprove the gateway theory but, as he told me, "The story about it misrepresented both our findings and my comments about the relevance of our findings to US drug policy. RAND and I have taken pains to emphasize that we do not believe we have disproved the gateway theory."

The study did say that a high incidence of progression from marijuana to heroin and cocaine use is apparent; that the younger you are when you start using marijuana, the more likely you are to end up using cocaine and heroin; that the more often you use marijuana, the more likely you will use cocaine and heroin.

In short, the study shows the correlation between marijuana and other drug abuse to be high.

Indeed, the study accepts previous studies that have demonstrated the probability that heroin and cocaine use increases 85 times for marijuana users when compared with those who are not marijuana users; that early teen use of marijuana is even more highly correlated with other drug use than late teen marijuana use; and that the more puffs of marijuana you take, the more likely you move on to injections and snorting of even more dangerous drugs.

But here's where the misunderstanding begins. The study says that maybe these terrible things happen because the people who use all these nasty drugs do it because they have a propensity for drug use, and marijuana is the first illegal drug to present itself to the young.

Dr. Morral calls that the "common factor" theory.

In other words, all drug users like all drugs; marijuana just comes along first. He suggests that this theory might be more accurate than the gateway theory.

But is a gateway not a gateway because it happens to present itself in front of where you want to go?

Perhaps this study's findings appear trivial. They aren't. If marijuana is merely the door through which those inclined to use drugs pass because it is convenient, all the more reason to keep that door locked.

I'm convinced that's the best way to view Morrall's findings, because the pro-marijuana lobby and much of what the press missed in this study, as well as other careful studies, were findings that suggest:

• There is a strong correlation between marijuana and other drug abuse, with marijuana almost always occurring first.

• Marijuana, all by itself, is a dangerous drug.

• There is a strong correlation between marijuana use and schizophrenia.

• Marijuana itself is addictive.

• Youth marijuana use correlates highly with violence, truancy, and other behavioral problems.

• The younger the marijuana user, the more psychological and physiological damage done, and the more likely that other drugs will follow.

• Smoking three marijuana joints a day can cause the equivalent respiratory damage associated with 20 cigarettes a day. Marijuana smokers show significantly more respiratory symptoms than people who don't smoke it.

• Prolonged use can cause attention deficit and deterioration in memory.

Over the years, I have talked with hundreds of addicts and treatment counselors. They say that marijuana was virtually always the beginning of a long, ugly journey; that marijuana is the most insidious of the illegal drugs because of the seductive, but often wrong, rationale that you can quit any time you want; that easy access to marijuana is a major part of the problem; and that their lives would have been far better if marijuana had been out of the picture.

As we do more studies, we might turn to these people for insight.

So what of the utility of the "common factor" theory over the "gateway" theory? A weed by any other name still smells the same.

Jim McDonough is director of the Florida Office of Drug Control. He previously served as director of strategic planning at the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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