Study Deals New Blow to Gateway Theory 2/9/01

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A study published this month in the American Journal of Public Health ( has found that the so-called gateway theory of drug use "is not relevant to the kids who came before the baby boomers and those born during the 1960s, and it is increasingly less relevant to those who came after."

"Dire predictions of future hard drug abuse by youths who came of age in the 1990s may be greatly overstated," concluded Dr. Andrew Golub, an eminent and prolific drug abuse researcher, who since 1994 has been examining the validity of the gateway theory. That theory, popular not only among ardent prohibitionists, but also in parts of the scientific community and among the public at large, holds that there exists a logical progression in drug use. Starting with tobacco, the use of each drug opens a "gate" to the next drug in the progression.

Golub and his associates analyzed data about teenage drug use from more than 100,000 people who participated in the government's annual National Household Survey on Drug Abuse between 1979 and 1997. They conclude that increasing marijuana use in the 1990s is unlikely to result in an upsurge of hard drug use in coming years.

"The drug subculture among inner city youth today encourages marijuana use but discourages use of hard drugs," Golub told the Associated Press. "Many of these kids witnessed the devastating effects of crack and heroin on their own families and neighborhoods."

Golub's findings suggest that the gateway theory is more an historical artifact than an explanation for drug use valid over time. For persons born before World War II, the progression from tobacco and alcohol to marijuana and on to hard drugs was rare. The "stages of drug use" phenomenon began with baby boomers and peaked among persons born around 1960, the study found. Since then, the percentage of people moving from marijuana to hard drugs has declined.

The study's findings carry public policy implications, Golub wrote in the grant proposal for the research
( Should his research further weaken the gateway theory, wrote Golub, "it would suggest several important policy responses. First, programs aimed at preventing hard drug use by preventing or delaying early use of alcohol and tobacco may not be effective. Indeed, under the strictest controls, youths might simply start their substance use with marijuana which is often readily available through an underground peer network. Second, monitoring how well a community is preventing future drug use by monitoring youthful alcohol and tobacco use might be inappropriate. Third, the recent increase in youthful marijuana use might not be indicative of increased hard drug use to come. Hence, extensive concern about a future epidemic of hard drug use might be unwarranted at this time."

Golub, who has clearly been thinking about the gateway theory for some time, provided insight into its durability in an interview at Potsdam University ( When asked to explain the theory's persistence he resorted to broadly-applicable models of public policy: "I suspect there are a variety of reasons. Graham Allison [social scientist and author of 'Essence of Decision: The Making of the Cuban Missile Crisis,' where he elaborated the theory below] has indicated that there are three domains -- rational, institutional and political -- which affect the formation of public policy."

"The wealth of scientific findings inform the rational perspective. It is convenient to reduce this often dry stack of findings to a simple metaphor. Convenient, but not always correct. The gateway and stepping stone metaphors are particularly compelling because, if they were true, they provide a clear foundation for early substance abuse prevention, a problem of great concern. The true solution to this problem is probably much more complicated as are most problems regarding human behavior and our social condition."

"From the institutional perspective, there are many agencies and policies dedicated to preventing adolescent substance use. Making important sounding statements based on the gateway theory provides a useful justification for larger budgets, increased staff, and job security."

"From the political perspective, there are varied interest groups which appear to be increasingly intolerant of people taking individual risks. These groups are concerning themselves with a wide range of behaviors, automobile air bags, the use of child seats in cars, second-hand smoke, and adolescent substance use. Supporting a theory, like the gateway theory, helps propel their concerns to the forefront."

Perhaps that is why the Office of National Drug Control Policy spokesman Bob Weiner felt compelled to denounce Golub's study even though he had admittedly not read it.

"The parents of the children who have gone on to cocaine would have more common sense than his findings seem to come out with," Weiner said, apparently foregoing the rational perspective in favor of preserving institutional power and political prerogatives.

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Issue #172, 2/9/01 New York: District Attorneys Mount Opposition to Rockefeller Reforms | New Jersey to Pay Out $12.90 Million to Victims in Racial Profiling Shooting, Attorney General Dismisses More Drug Cases | San Francisco Ecstasy Conference Generates Heat but Also Light | DEA Posts Funny Numbers in its "Operation Libertador" Bust | NarcoNews on Key Moves in Venezuela, Legal Fundraising Appeal | Britain: Medical Marijuana Research Gets Underway, Legislation Stalled in Parliament | Study Deals New Blow to Gateway Theory | Miscellania | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: Go Back to Law School

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