Gateway theory is the hypothesis that exposure to entry level drugs such as tobacco, alcohol and marijuana reliably predicts a deeper and more severe drug involvement for the user in the future (O’Brien Lecture). For the sake of this discussion, I will refer to marijuana as the gateway drug. Gateway theory is comprised of three propositions: Sequencing, Association, and Causation. Sequencing refers to the idea that there is a relationship between two drugs, where the use of one is regularly initiated before the use of the other. For example, most cocaine users used marijuana before moving on to the harder drug cocaine.
Marijuana and cocaine, respectively, were used in sequence. The association proposition suggests that use of one drug increases the probability of use of a second drug. An example would be that marijuana users are 15 times more likely to use heroine than non-users (O’Brien Lecture). Finally, causation implies that there is something inherent in the pharmacology of one drug and its interaction with the brain that actually causes the use and dependence on more dangerous drugs without the intervention of any outside factors or variables (Goode 252-253).
Causation infers that using marijuana and getting “high” alters the mind in a way such that the user will move on to heroine in the future. Of these three propositions, I believe that causation is the easiest to refute. There is no pharmacological basis to suggest that marijuana itself alters the mind in a way that makes a user “wired” for harder drug use (O’Brien Lecture). However, there are certain sociocultural factors as well as personal predispositions that cause certain people to move onto harder drugs.
Sociocultural factors include the activities, settings, and friends a user is involved with during the use of the drug. For instance, a marijuana user is likely to have friends who also use marijuana with them. These friends are far more likely than non-users to be interested in harder drugs as well, and could quite possibly persuade the user’s opinion on, and provide easy access to harder drugs (Goode 254-255). Another argument against Gateway theory and its propositions is the idea of predisposition.
Predisposition is the notion that “the kinds of people who engage in one type of behavior are highly likely to be the kinds of people who engage in another. (Goode 255)” Predisposition introduces a different factor, independent of the use of drug A and drug B, such as lifestyle, or personality that causes the use of both drug A and B. What predisposition suggests is that drug use, whether it is marijuana or heroine is a symptom of another factor such as low income, poor parenting, or addictive personality.
Clearly certain drugs like marijuana have a gateway effect; however, I propose that the subsequent use of harder drugs is not because of the use of marijuana but because of some other independent factor. There is clearly a pattern in drug use, in which marijuana use usually comes before cocaine, heroin, PCP, or any other hard drug. Just like in anything in life, there are patterns which are normally followed. An adrenaline junkie, someone predisposed to the adrenaline rush that comes with thrill seeking, is far more likely to go skydiving than someone who is scared of heights.
However, the adrenaline junkie must first make a series of tandem jumps before jumping solo. The tandem jumps did not cause him or her to jump solo, rather, it was merely a stepping stone on the path to the ultimate goal of jumping solo. 2 Sullum contends that the majority of drug users in the U. S. fall somewhere in between two extremes (Sullum 8-9). These extremes can be defined as experimenters and dysfunctional users. The lesser of the extremes, experimenters, are users who try one or more drugs, but the drugs do not play a significant role in their lives.
They also don’t actively seek out the drugs and may only use drugs when they are offered. Dysfunctional users are at the other end of the spectrum. In a dysfunctional user, drugs are the most significant part of their life. They have lost control of their drug use to the extent that they are personally and socially dysfunctional (O’Brien Lecture). Sullum believes that our society wrongfully groups all drug users into the dysfunctional category because they are the ones we hear about on the news and see on the streets. However, the numbers don’t lie.
There are a far greater number of people who have admitted to using drugs than we see on the news or who are locked up in jail. Therefore, Sullum suggests that the majority of drug users in the U. S. are either social-recreational users or involved users. Social-recreational users use drugs more frequently and for a longer period of time than experimenters, but they are still functional and the drug does not play a significant role in their life. Usually social-recreational users use drugs because they have a happy or social effect on them.
Involved users are one step above social-recreational users and one step below dysfunctional users. Involved users are characterized by an active seeking of the drug as well as having a steady access to it. The drug does play a significant role in their life, as it may give them confidence or energy, but they are still functional members of society and have not lost control. We tend to hear about the dysfunctional users more often than the social-recreational and involved users for a few reasons.
First, as I mentioned before, dysfunctional users are the ones we see on the news and on the streets. They are the ones going to jail and being checked into treatment. The news neglects to show successful, functional drugs users, as it wouldn’t be newsworthy. Another reason we hear more about dysfunctional users is because much of the researcher that is done on drugs is conducted by our government; the very ones waging the war on drugs. “Scientists who are interested in looking at drug use as something other than a problem are not likely to get funding from the government… (Sullum 15) Clearly successful and functional drug users (social-recreational and involved users) would not want the stigma of being grouped along with dysfunctional users, and therefore are not heard about or recognized. Sullum takes a constructionist approach to drugs as opposed to the essentialist approach that emphasizes what a drug actually “is” with regards to its chemical makeup. The constructionist approach looks at nurture rather than nature. Traditional constructionist theory is characterized by what society as a whole thinks (constructs). Sullum argues against the traditional constructionist view of legal vs. llegal by drawing attention to the social context in which drug use occurs, the how, why, when and where, rather than the black-and-white, all-or-nothing context in which drugs are typically approached in our society. This is evident by his discussions with police officers, CEO’s, and politicians. Rather than asking them about the legality vs. illegality or the objective chemical properties (essentialist), he discusses more context. Sulllum believes that social context factors determine how likely drug use is to cause harm in an individual, which he claims is the most crucial consideration in making moral judgments about it (Sullum 24).