Pubdate: Thu, 05 Dec 2002
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2002 Chicago Tribune Company
Author: Reuters


WASHINGTON -- Casting doubt on a basic principle of U.S. anti-drug 
policies, an independent study concluded Monday that marijuana use may not 
lead teenagers to experiment with hard drugs like heroin or cocaine.

The study by the private, non-profit RAND Drug Policy Research Center 
countered the theory that marijuana acts as a "gateway" drug to more 
harmful narcotics, a key argument against legalizing marijuana in the 
United States.

The researchers did not advocate easing restrictions in marijuana but 
questioned the focus on this substance in U.S. drug-control efforts.

"The evidence has seemed so strong in favor of the gateway effect that a 
lot of policymakers and others have taken it for granted the gateway effect 
is real," said Andrew Morral, lead author of the RAND study. "We have shown 
why this is not necessarily the case."

Using data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse between 1982 
and 1994, the study concluded teenagers who took hard drugs were 
predisposed to do so whether they tried marijuana first or not.

"Kids get their first opportunity to use marijuana years before they get 
their first exposure to hard drugs," Morral said. "It is possible marijuana 
is not a gateway drug. It's just the first thing kids often come across."

Morral said 50 percent of U.S. teenagers had access to marijuana by the age 
of 16, while the majority had no exposure to cocaine, heroin or 
hallucinogens until they were 20.

He said this four-year gap in exposure to the drugs raised doubts about the 
gateway theory espoused by many social scientists, and underpinning many 
U.S. anti-drug policies and education campaigns.

The study, published in the British journal Addiction, does not advocate 
legalizing or decriminalizing marijuana, which has been linked to side 
effects such as short-term memory loss.

But given limited resources, Morral said the U.S. government should 
reconsider the prominence of marijuana in its much-publicized war on drugs.

"If our model is correct, to a certain extent we are diverting resources 
away from hard drug problems," he said. "Spending money on marijuana 
control may not be having downstream consequences on the use of hard drugs."

Researchers say predisposition to drug use has been linked to genetic 
factors and one's environment, including family dynamics and the 
availability of drugs in the neighborhood.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens