Marijuana Majority: Americans Now Back Legalization: Op-Ed

cannabis leaf
The Cannabis plant has thin, jagged leaves that branch into five to seven fingers. (Image credit: Arno van Dulmen | Shutterstock)

Jeff Nesbit  was the director of public affairs for two prominent federal science agencies and is a regular contributor to U.S. News & World Report, where this article first ran before appearing in LiveScience’s Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

It's 4/20 time again this week. For those who aren't part of the Millennial generation, 4/20 is unofficial "Weed Day" in America —a counterculture phenomenon that has drawn up to 10,000 marijuana legalization activists at college campuses in the U.S. in some years.

In years past, Weed Day counterculture "holiday" celebrations have taken place on 4/20 at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, in several Canadian cities or at college campuses in Boulder, Colo., and elsewhere. Weed Day has also migrated to other parts of the world. [Cannabis: Facts About Marijuana & Effects of Marijuana]

Where did the concept of 4/20 as a way to celebrate marijuana smoking originate? That's a bit more difficult to discern, though a reporter for The Huffington Post once tracked it down to a flyer at a Grateful Dead concert in 1990 that referred to "420ing" (smoking pot) on April 20 of that year that, in various stages, led to successive celebrations on April 20.

HuffPost also tracked it back even further, to San Rafael, Calif., high-school friends known as "the Waldos" who coined the term "4/20" in the 1970s as the designated time of the day to smoke pot after school. By fits and starts, 4/20 as either a time of day for pot smoking or a counterculture day of rebellion then traveled mostly by word of mouth.

This year, Weed Day enthusiasts hoping to see the tide turn (both politically and socially) on the legalization of marijuana front have more to celebrate than in years past.

A national survey by the Pew Research Center earlier this month found that, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans would now support regulating marijuana use the way that most states and federal authorities regulate alcohol use. [5 Wacky Things That Are Good for Your Health]

In fact, Pew found, the number of Baby Boomers who would support decriminalizing marijuana has gone up year after year during the 40 years it's been asking about the question —and is now more than double what it was in the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, recent studies have confirmed what social scientists have been saying for years about the theory that marijuana is a “gateway drug” that leads to hard drug use —namely, that the “gateway drug theory” for marijuana simply doesn't hold up scientifically.

If anything, these new studies found, other things like alcohol or cigarette use are better predictors than marijuana use of eventual prescription drug abuse or addiction to harder drugs like heroin and cocaine.

A Yale study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health late last year, for instance, found that alcohol or cigarette use was twice as likely to predict prescription opiate drug abuse as marijuana use. Prescription drug overdoses are far more prevalent now in America than either cocaine or heroin overdoses.

The Yale study pulled data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and found that, of the 12 percent who self-identified that they’d abused prescription drugs, 57 percent said that they’d previously used alcohol, 56 percent said they’d previously smoked cigarettes —and just 37 percent said they’d previously used marijuana.

A study published in The Journal of School Health focusing on the “gateway drug theory” for marijuana also found that alcohol, rather than marijuana, was the most commonly used substance for first-time drug users. Yet, alcohol has never been thought of as a gateway drug to cocaine, heroin or prescription opiate abuse.

In fact, social scientists and psychologists now argue rather conclusively that none of these are actually “gateway drugs” that lead someone down the path to addiction to harder or more addictive drugs.

Socio-economic considerations, environmental factors or genetics are much more likely to determine whether someone is more prone to abuse addictive substances, studies have shown repeatedly.

It’s been a long, slow decline for the “gateway drug theory” in the public’s mind, though. Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to look at the issues around medical marijuana use more than a decade ago. In a pivotal report in 1999, the NAS reported that “in fact, most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana —usually before they are of legal age.”

The NAS didn’t mince its words in that 1999 report to Congress. “In the sense that marijuana use typically precedes rather than follows initiation of other illicit drug use, it is indeed a ‘gateway’ drug,’” it said. “But because underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede marijuana use, marijuana is not the most common, and is rarely the first, ‘gateway’ to illicit drug use. There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”

None of these studies, however, slowed down the “gateway drug theory” in the public’s mind —until recently. Whether through a combination of “Weed Day” demonstrations on 4/20 or the success of medical marijuana initiatives in states around the U.S., most Americans are in a different place on marijuana now and would likely support it being regulated like alcohol consumption.

Yet, as longtime advocates of marijuana legalization know all too well, public and scientific support for their positions don’t necessarily translate into political action on such an issue. It may, in fact, be years before we finally see the official death of the gateway drug theory, and the rise of acceptable government action on the legalization of marijuana.

This article first appeared as Growing Numbers of Americans Support Legalizing Pot Use in the column At the Edge by Jeff Nesbit on U.S. News & World Report. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher.