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Researchers debunk "gateway drug" marijuana theory

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Marijuana is at the forefront of political debate as more states move toward legalization and the 2016 presidential campaign gets underway. Politicians like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have vowed to crack down on marijuana, offering dated rhetoric about marijuana as a gateway drug.

Research proves otherwise.

Data analyzed from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that alcohol is more of a catalyst for trying other psychoactive substances, beating out marijuana in the addiction arms race.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration measures the prevalence of drug, alcohol and tobacco use in U.S. citizens ages 12 and older. Data has been collected since 1974, with minor reporting modifications throughout the years.

One section of the survey examines the age when users tried an intoxicant for the first time, and the next intoxicant (if any) they went on to use. Researchers use this information to support the gateway drug theory — the hypothesis that using one intoxicating substance leads to future use of another.

In order words, if you start smoking pot at 12, you'll end up using cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.

According to analysts from Treatment4Addiction, a fifth of marijuana users had never tried another drug before using marijuana, and two-thirds had only ever consumed alcohol. While 60 percent of marijuana users went on to try another drug, for 17 percent, that next drug was alcohol.

Simply put, most people who use marijuana do not go on to use harder substances, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Alcohol is more commonly used. Surveys report that 88 percent of alcohol users had never tried another drug before drinking. While the number of people who stop at alcohol is slightly higher (50 percent) than the number who stop at marijuana (40 percent), a third of drinkers move on to marijuana as their next drug.

Most important, correlation does not imply causation. While 11 percent of marijuana smokers started using cocaine, that doesn't mean that one drug led to the other, the Treatment4Addiction analysis asserts.

Existing data does not support a clearly defined gateway from one intoxicant to the other, but rather varied pathways which are affected by — yet fail to measure — factors like poverty, social environment, mental illness and access. ♦