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U.S. Attorney General Says Cannabis Is Not a Gateway Drug

September 22, 2016
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, right, speaks at Madison Central High School in Richmond, Ky., Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. Listening at left is Kerry Harvey, a U.S. Attorney in Kentucky. Lynch was in Kentucky to raise awareness of prescription drug and heroin abuse as part of an Obama administration effort. (AP Photo/Dylan Lovan)
On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch acknowledged that the consumption of cannabis does not lead a person to use harder drugs. Lynch’s public statement may be the clearest repudiation yet of the mythical “gateway theory” originally fabricated by drug czar Harry Anslinger in the 1950s.

Lynch made the statement during a town hall meeting in Richmond, Ky., where she discussed the dangers of opioid abuse with a group of high-school teens. In the course of that discussion, talk soon turned to the question of cannabis. Tyler Crafton, a student at Madison Central High School, asked Lynch whether she thought that recreational use of cannabis among high school kids would lead to opioid abuse.

“It’s not as though we are seeing that marijuana is a specific gateway,” Lynch said.

“There a lot of discussion about marijuana these days,” Lynch responded. “Some states are making it legal, people are looking into medical uses for it, and I understand that it still is as common as almost anything. When we talk about heroin addiction, we usually, as we have mentioned, are talking about individuals that started out with a prescription drug problem, and then because they need more and more, they turn to heroin. It isn’t so much that marijuana is the step right before using prescription drugs or opioids.”

“If you tend to experiment with a lot of things in life,” Lynch added, “you may be more inclined to experiment with drugs.”

If that additional statement strikes you as backtracking—well, it sounds like that to me, too. But then Lynch followed up with what could be one of the most important quotes about cannabis this election season.

“It’s not as though we are seeing that marijuana is a specific gateway,” she said.

That comment is consistent with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which notes that the majority of people who use cannabis do not go on to use other, harder substances. When Lynch talked about opiates with the high school students, she said that opioid painkillers could actually be the gateway drug.


Another Study Shows Cannabis Legalization Does Not Increase Underage Access

The mythical “gateway theory” was originally fabricated by federal Bureau of Narcotics Commissioner Harry Anslinger. In the 1930s, Anslinger specifically rejected the notion that cannabis lured consumers on to stronger drugs. “The marijuana addict does not go in that direction,” he told Congress. A decade later, Anslinger reversed himself and established the gateway theory as a way to prop up the marijuana threat. Most young heroin addicts, he testified, “took to the needle when the thrill of marihuana was gone.” (If you want to know more, check out Martin A. Lee’s definitive history, Smoke Signals.)

The gateway theory has been debunked by countless government studies. Take your pick: the 1944 LaGuardia Commission reportthe 1972 Shafer Commission report; the 1999 Institute of Medicine report. As researchers with the federal Institute of Medicine reported: “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”

Lynch’s statement itself wasn’t shocking. We’ve known since the 1940s that the gateway theory is a fairy tale. What’s surprising is that it took this long for a sitting U.S. attorney general to acknowledge that very basic and proven fact.

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Gage Peake

Gage Peake is a former staff writer for Leafly, where he specialized in data journalism, sports, and breaking news coverage. He's a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's College of Journalism and Mass Communications.

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  • alacrity

    I’m constantly amused at that line of logic- that using cannabis leads to harder drugs- and argue that the prohibition of it is responsible for the escalation. By placing it on the blacklist, they put it in the same hands that provide those harder drugs. In high school, there were several dealers who’d deliberately “run out” of weed, but had other stuff like pills, black tar heroin, etc. to take it’s place and used the line “hey, if you liked that Thai, you’ll love this stuff- here, try a dose on me” and the consumer would be hooked- there was more profit in an actual addicting substance that there was in “weed”.

    When they put cannabis on the same shelf as those harder drugs, people who realized it wasn’t as bad as they’d been told and didn’t believe that same line about the latter.

    • cigarboxguitarguy

      That’s where cannabis is a gateway. Because you have to deal with criminals that are dealing, not only cannabis, but anything else you might like to try. It’s not the cannabis that’s the gateway. Making, otherwise law abiding citizens, deal with professional criminals is the gateway. It’s a gateway to contacts, access and experimentation opportunities. In state’s where is it now properly regulated, people are abandoning their dealer, for stores. Their dealers are going to the store. I don’t know anyone that would not prefer to deal with a local store over the risk of dealing on the black market. The variety and quality assurance is more than even the best hook-up can offer. And not even the best connection is as dependable as multiple locations, open daily. Properly regulating cannabis may actually be a road block to experimentation with harder drugs. It’s one less pathway into the black market. It’s one less buddy that knows this guy who can get you weed or whatever else you want.

      • alacrity


  • Amanda

    Oh now look at that. All the junkies just lost their excuse as to why they abuse drugs. Now the FDA and Big Pharma can back off because they having nothing to fear.

    No when I use MMJ I don’t get the overwhelmingly urge to go ruin my life with heroin or meth. It’s in your genetics to push boundaries. If you go too far and have no boundaries that is your issue that leads to addiction. So is hiding from your problems and no accountability. Those issues can lead to addiction.

    But in the end, the choice, to use and abuse drugs is based on simply choosing to do it or not. End of discussion.

    • MG Deegan

      So need my marijuana

  • cactusjim420

    All I gotta say is ;NO SHIT!

    • MG Deegan

      I want say something

  • Trump said he’ll leave it up to each state and the voters as it should be. He is a lot more reasonable than the media wants to show. I went to a rally and got home and flipped on the TV and the news took sound bites and spliced them together to make it sound like he said things he didn’t. It was very eye opening not to mention disturbing since so many believe everything the media feeds them..

    • Alex Cross

      Guess what?

  • Holt Webb

    Now, if they could only convince the DEA…

  • davidaquarius

    The ‘gateway drug’ was always a false flag, the reason it’s taken so long for a gov’t minion to say this is the political climate was ready for it. We come a long way in just a few years. But it’s not all buds and roses yet. The importance of this election can’t be overstated. The cannabis movement has gone too far for it to be forced back now. it’s really only a choice between two people – sorry third partiers. I woke up in the real world this morning and that means on Jan 20, 2017 the person taking the oath will be either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

    What would they do to our movement? Trump would try to take it down. He is not weed-friendly. Big Pharma, Tobacco, and Alcohol will keep him snug in their pocket. He’ll pull back the Justice Dept. memos and return us to the good ol’ bad ol’ days of the War on Drugs. He would make sure every state called out the National Guard to ensure compliance.

    As for Clinton, she’s a player, a damn smart player. She’s been in this game for a long freaking time and is a master at it. Love her or hate her you can’t deny her success. She knows how to play the game and play it well. She has said that she recognizes the need for more research and that keeping it at Schedule One is counter productive. Translation: She’ll keep the status quo and (maybe) move it down the list to Schedule Two or Three. It’s not what we want but it’s a good first step. As more states come on board, the need for a more responsible treatment of cannabis will become more obvious With Hillary as president, this will happen. If Trump gets in we won’t see the light of day for years. The choice is clear. For the sake of the cannabis movement, we need to elect Hillary Clinton. That’s reality, not Facebook philosophers, Alex Jones conspiracy theories or Benghazi cesspool rants, simple common freaking sense.

    That will only happen if we get out and vote! Tell your buddies that you’ll smoke them out if they vote. Plan a party. Whatever it takes. We need to pass every marijuana legislation out there so that states that are still on the fence will get the nerve to move toward legalization.

    Most politicians are cowards. They stand around and wait for someone to do something newsworthy then they follow for or against. As the topic grows they shift their views as soon as they see which way the wind is blowing. A ‘high’ voter turnout is the best way to keep the wind blowing our way.

  • 2016usaofzimbabwe


    • MG Deegan

      Medical marijuana is states

  • Kim Hanna

    The ‘gateway’ to hard drugs is alcohol. Though the DEA would never admit alcohol as the problem they will demonize opiates now that
    grass is becoming legal.

    • MG Deegan

      Achole and heroin is whose in world

  • Stel-1776

    The gateway concept is frequently brought up. Over the years I have collected much information on the subject.

    If prohibition has any effect, it makes cannabis a gateway to other illicit drugs.

    The gateway drug theory, that a unique pharmacological effect of cannabis causes the use of hard drugs, has been discredited by the many peer reviewed studies which have examined it.[1,2,3,4,5,6,14,15,16,19,24]

    If the gateway theory were to have any merit, then alcohol and tobacco would be the true gateway drugs as nearly all have tried these before cannabis.[1,6,23] There are many factors that determine which illicit substance will be used first, including availability and culture. In Japan, where cannabis use is not popular and largely frowned upon, 83% of illicit drug users did not use illicit cannabis first.[19] In the U.S., since cannabis is by far the most popular and available illegal recreational substance, it is unlikely that you would find many illicit hard drug users who did not encounter and use illicit cannabis first.[1] This does not mean cannabis caused their hard drug use. Rather it was their pre-existing interest in recreational substances combined with their willingness to try illicit substances and cannabis was simply, and predictably, the first encountered.[3,14,19]

    On a related note, studies have shown that cannabinoids can help treat those addicted to hard drugs and alcohol, and that it is an “exit drug” for some.[4,7,18,22].

    If anything, the prohibition of cannabis makes the hard drug problem worse. Once someone breaks the law to try the very popular and relatively safe drug cannabis, their reluctance to try another illegal substance diminishes. This is both because of their newly increased doubts of government honesty regarding the harmful effects of those substances as well, and their newly reduced respect for laws against drugs in general. Cannabis prohibition also connects cannabis consumers to the hard drug market. Imagine if beer merchants also sold heroin, cocaine and meth. This is the situation that the prohibition of cannabis creates for its consumers. It places a very popular substance into these otherwise unpopular markets, strengthening them and expanding their reach. Also, with no legal recourse to resolve disputes, cannabis prohibition increases the crime associated with these markets.

    Efforts to prevent hard drug abuse are undermined and resources misspent when gateway theory is accepted as valid. A recent extensive review on the subject concluded that: “The promotion of the erroneous gateway theory ultimately does the public a disservice, including the hindering of intervention.”[19]

    Regardless, one major concern is that relaxed laws will lead to significantly increased teen usage, but this has not been the case.[20] Legalizing medical cannabis in the U.S. has not increased cannabis usage in teens.[8,9,10,11,21] Decriminalization does not result in increased cannabis consumption, for any age group, except for a small, temporary increase during the first few years.[12,13] Portugal saw reduced adolescent cannabis use after decriminalizing all drugs in 2001.[17]


    1. Joy et al. Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base. Institute of Medicine. 1999.
    2. Morral et al. Reassessing the marijuana gateway effect. Drug Policy Research Center, RAND. Addiction. 2002.
    3. Cleveland HH & Wiebe RP. Understanding the association between adolescent marijuana use and later serious drug use: gateway effect or developmental trajectory? Dev Psychopathol. 2008.
    4. O’Connell TJ & Bou-Matar CB. Long term marijuana users seeking medical cannabis in California (2001–2007): demographics, social characteristics, patterns of cannabis and other drug use of 4117 applicants. Harm Reduction Journal. 2007.
    5. Wen et al. The Effect of Medical Marijuana Laws on Marijuana, Alcohol, and Hard Drug Use. The National Bureau of Economic Research. 2014.
    6. Tristan et al. Alcohol as a Gateway Drug: A Study of US 12th Graders. Journal of School Health. 2012.
    7. Oliere et al. Modulation of the Endocannabinoid System: Vulnerability Factor and New Treatment Target for Stimulant Addiction. Front Psychiatry. 2013. Review.
    8. Choo et al. The Impact of State Medical Marijuana Legislation on Adolescent Marijuana Use. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2014.
    9. Lynne-Landsman et al. Effects of state medical marijuana laws on adolescent marijuana use. Am J Public Health. 2013.
    10. Harper et al. Do medical marijuana laws increase marijuana use? Replication study and extension. Ann Epidemiol. 2012.
    11. Anderson et al. Medical Marijuana Laws and Teen Marijuana Use. IZA 2012.
    12. Williams J, Bretteville-Jensen AL. Does liberalizing cannabis laws increase cannabis use? J Health Econ. 2014.
    13. Single EW. The impact of marijuana decriminalization: an update. J Public Health Policy. 1989.
    14. Tarter et al. Predictors of Marijuana Use in Adolescents Before and After Licit Drug Use: Examination of the Gateway Hypothesis. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2006.
    15. Van Gundy K & Rebellon CJ. A Life-course Perspective on the “Gateway Hypothesis”. J Health Soc Behav. 2010.
    16. Tarter et al. Predictors of marijuana use in adolescents before and after licit drug use: examination of the gateway hypothesis. Am J Psychiatry. 2006.
    17. Hughes C E and Stevens A. What Can We Learn From The Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?. Brit J Criminol. 2010.
    18. Reiman A. Cannabis as a substitute for alcohol and other drugs. Harm Reduct J. 2009.
    19. Vanyukov et al. Common liability to addiction and “gateway hypothesis”: theoretical, empirical and evolutionary perspective. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2012. Review.
    20. Simons-Morton et al. Cross-national comparison of adolescent drinking and cannabis use in the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands. Int J Drug Policy. 2010.
    21. Hasin et al. Medical marijuana laws and adolescent marijuana use in the USA from 1991 to 2014: results from annual, repeated cross-sectional surveys. The Lancet. 2015.
    22. Bisaga et al. The effects of dronabinol during detoxification and the initiation of treatment with extended release naltrexone. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2015.
    23. Barry et al. Prioritizing Alcohol Prevention: Establishing Alcohol as the Gateway Drug and Linking Age of First Drink With Illicit Drug Use. J Sch Health. 2016.
    24. Degenhardt et al. Evaluating the drug use “gateway” theory using cross-national data: consistency and associations of the order of initiation of drug use among participants in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2010.

    • MG Deegan

      Hard drugs are bad leave out marijuana part out. Myth cocaine marijuana are cool . Heroin achole are bads

    • Rob Watson

      This has to be THE BEST constructed argument I have ever seen on this subject. Thank you for the time you spent researching and putting this information together.

  • MG Deegan

    I smoke it pain i have hurt ribs timpleminegranies broken disc I am alot pain brangkiness I need marijuana it there reason I broken bones I need buds to keep me hang on 100:/: all-time Mrs Clinton and Bennie sander is #1

  • Chris Replogle

    My 2 cents on the gateway issue. I think the only reason it would be a gateway is if you buy it on the illegal market. When you buy it on the underground, you come into contact with all kinds of people. Some of those people may also sell other drugs. This is where I believe people, who would never even consider other drugs, could be introduced to them. If you can buy it legally, you would never have to deal with people who sell drugs. I say it’s contact with the underground or illegal market that is the gateway.

    One other aspect that I think is overlooked, and this is from personal experience. When you teach kids in school that someone high on Marijuana might jump off a building because they think they can fly. Or you classify it along with Heroin or other hard drugs, you are feeding kids disinformation. Kids aren’t that stupid. If they do experiment with Marijuana, they find out first hand that no one thinks they can fly. They feel lied to. At this point, they don’t trust what has been said about other drugs. If Marijuana “is as harmful & dangerous as Heroin” than these other drugs probably aren’t as bad as they have been portrayed. If they would be more honest about the effects of Marijuana, they would be more likely to believe what they read in their school books about other drugs. These scare tactics just teach kids not to trust what they are taught. And even affects their trust in the Government, although this alone might not be a bad thing.

  • Mother’s milk leads to everything.