Marijuana prohibition -- not the use of marijuana itself -- appears to play a role in influencing some individuals to advance to harder drugs, according to a recent report from the Netherlands Institute of Medical Health and Addiction.
The 1997 fact sheet, entitled "Cannabis Policy, an update," reviews Dutch marijuana policy and criticizes the notion of marijuana as a gateway drug. The report cites "social factors," not the use of marijuana alone, as the primary reason why a minority of marijuana users graduate to stronger drugs. It concludes that marijuana must be separated from the illegal drug market in order to effectively discourage users from trying other drugs.
The following excerpt is taken from the summary conclusions of the Dutch report.
"The assumption that cannabis consumers run a higher risk of switching to hard drugs ... is known as 'the stepping stone hypothesis.' This idea was first put forward in the forties in the USA and has since greatly influenced public opinion, as well as American and international drug policies.
As for a possible switch from cannabis to hard drugs, it is clear that the pharmacological properties of cannabis are irrelevant in this respect. There is no physically determined tendency towards [sic] switching from marijuana to harder substances. [Emphasis added. --ed.] Social factors, however, do appear to play a role. The more users become integrated in an environment ('subculture') where, apart from cannabis, hard drugs can also be obtained, the greater the chance that they may switch to hard drugs. Separation of the drug markets is therefore essential."
The report defends the nation's policy of "tolerating" the use and sale of marijuana by stating that the Netherlands has fewer hard drug addicts and drug-related deaths than neighboring countries. The report also states that Dutch marijuana-use rates are comparable to those in countries where use is illegal and notes that the overwhelming majority of the country's marijuana users do not experiment with harder drugs.
Surprisingly, recent literature from the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reinforces the Dutch argument. According to the 1996 guidebook Marijuana: What Parents Need to Know: "Using marijuana puts children and teens at risk with people who are pushers and sellers of other drugs. So there is more of a risk that a marijuana user will be exposed to and urged to try more drugs." The pamphlet also concludes that, "Most marijuana users do not go on to use other illegal drugs." [Emphasis added. --ed.]
NORML Executive Director R. Keith Stroup, Esq. praised the observations of the recent reports and called for the U.S. government to take action to remove marijuana from the illicit drug trade. "Every federal study over the past century has revealed the 'gateway theory' to be a blatant falsehood. As the Dutch model demonstrates, when the marijuana market is effectively separated from the harder drugs, marijuana is clearly a terminus rather than a gateway drug. Politicians in America who voice concern about marijuana being a possible gateway to harder drugs should review the facts and support policies that will effectively separate marijuana from the black market."
For more information, please contact either Allen St. Pierre or Paul Armentano of the NORML Foundation at (202) 483-8751. Copies of NORML's position paper: Marijuana and the Gateway Theory are available upon request. Copies of Cannabis Policy, an update are also available from the national office.