The Tiresome Gateway Drug Debate.

The New York Times has a rather specious article up today by about the rising rates of rehabilitation admittance for marijuana users, and boy, does it lay it on thick: the article starts with an anecdote about a marijuana addict from New York City (“Joyce, 52 and a writer in Manhattan”); briefly touches on the relative potency of marijuana today and in the 70s; and then settles comfortably into erecting a number of straw men (variously attributed to “addiction experts”, “Many public health officials”, and “some doctors”) and then gleefully pushing them over.  Key section:

Marijuana, the country’s most widely used illicit drug, is typically not thought to destroy lives. Like alcohol, pot has been romanticized by writers and musicians, from Louis Armstrong to Bob Dylan, and it has been depicted as harmless or silly in movies like “Harold and Kumar.” And addiction experts agree, marijuana does not pose as serious a public health problem as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. The drug cannot lead to fatal overdose and its hazards pale in comparison with those of alcohol. But at the same time, marijuana can be up to five times more potent than the cannabis of the 1970s, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

(snip)

More adults are now admitted to treatment centers for primary marijuana and hashish addictions than for primary addictions to heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, according to the latest government data, a 2007 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Notwithstanding the massive non-sequitur that comprises the last sentence of the first paragraph, the one thing that the article fails to do is give any evidence whatsoever that marijuana-addiction rates are on the rise.  Instead, it quotes misleading statistics about rehab-attendance that could be attributed to any number of factors.  The rehab rates for cocaine and heroin have fallen because usage rates of cocaine and heroin have fallen in recent years.  At the same time, we’ve acquired a more sophisticated understanding of both the physical and psychological mechanisms of addiction in the last two decades, and that in and of itself could explain the rising rates of marijuana rehab rates: the mere fact that people acknowledge that marijuana addiction exists makes them more likely to seek treatment for it.

Look: there are things we all know.  Chronic marijuana use is not healthy.  Certain people are, for a number of reasons, inherently predisposed to addiction.  Some of those people have a psychological dependence on marijuana, and it probably hasn’t been a positive force in their lives.  The increasing potency of marijuana isn’t a good trend overall (and wouldn’t it be nice to have some sort of government agency to regulate that sort of thing?).  These are all serious problems, and worthy of attention.

But by framing the argument in such unrealistically dire terms – by, say, repeatedly referring to marijuana as a gateway drug, or by comparing it directly to cocaine – the authors of the Times article undermine themselves.  There is absolutely nothing that proves that using marijuana leads to the abuse of harder drugs, and the way we know that is because there are vastly many fewer hard drug users than marijuana users.  (I can count the number of people I know who regularly do heroin on one hand; a similar attempt for marijuana would require rather more fingers.)  And marijuana is neither as dangerous nor as addictive as cocaine, and pretending it is so is simply fearmongering.

There’s a real debate to be had about marijuana.  But without a certain amount of intellectual honesty – on both sides – we’re never going to get there.  And the Times article, by masquerading opinion as fact, doesn’t come anywhere close.