Alcohol – The Real ‘Gateway Drug’

Decades of prejudice against marijuana have long resulted in demonizing the substance as the ‘gateway drug’ that leads to harder drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. Turns out, that impression is incorrect. Marijuana use is not the main indicator of whether someone will go on to more dangerous drugs. The best predictor is—ta-da—the use of alcohol!

A lot of people won’t find this surprising, but those who are fighting the so-called “war on drugs” might want to pay attention. The Journal of School Health just published a study in their August edition that puts the blame squarely on alcohol as the precipitating factor behind further drug use. Co-author Adam E. Barry, of the University of Florida, said in an interview with Raw Story that “basically, if we know what someone says with regards to their alcohol use, then we should be able to predict what they respond to with other [drugs].”

This study adds to a growing body of similar evidence. In a 2009 study put out by Missouri Western State University, the researchers found that “100% of the people who reported marijuana use were also drinkers. The first drug used by the majority of people who smoke marijuana was alcohol (67%).”  They concluded that, “What people don’t realize is that marijuana use comes after someone is already using alcohol and tobacco.”  Their conclusion is the same as that of the new study; they believe that “awareness of the role of alcohol as a stepping stone needs to be brought to light through alcohol education.”

Professor David Nutt, formerly the United Kingdom’s chief drug adviser to the government, issued a report in 2010 that said alcohol use is three times more harmful than crack, more than twice as harmful as heroin, and about five times as harmful as marijuana. Of course, he was sacked by the government in 2009 for going against their own rankings—rankings that portrayed alcohol as less harmful than certain other drugs. Nutt had to form the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, along with two other experts, in order to investigate the issue without political interference. He, too, concluded that “aggressively targeting alcohol harms is a valid and necessary public health strategy.”

Will the newly published study fall on deaf ears, as others have? Florida’s Professor Barry points out that, “By delaying the onset of alcohol initiation, rates of both licit substance abuse like tobacco and illicit substance use like marijuana and other drugs will be positively affected, and they’ll hopefully go down.” But powerful factors are working in opposition to this outcome. After all, the widespread sale of alcohol reaps enormous profits for the liquor industry—$19.1 billion in 2010 alone. Plus, demonizing marijuana creates a multitude of jobs for law enforcement, funds for private prison systems, and heavy militarization of the border with Mexico.

The authors of the new study might want to have a chat with Professor David Nutt. He has some experience—and possibly some advice—about how government reacts to those who challenge the status quo.

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