Reason Roundup

Is Marijuana Making You a Heroin Addict?: Reason Roundup


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"Gateway drug" nonsense returns. In the U.S., California has been ahead of the curve on legalizing marijuana. It's also been hit significantly less hard by a wave of opioid deaths than eastern states and much of the Midwest.

Most Americans these days have at least tried pot, with a full 52 percent now reporting that they've smoked or otherwise consumed marijuana at least once. When it comes to heroin, however, that number drops to about 1.8 percent.

A national survey in 2015 found that 22.2 million people had used marijuana in the past month. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2017 (the last year for which there is data), just 494,000 people had used heroin in the entire previous year.

I could go on. There's a huge array of data showing that people can try marijuana or even consume it regularly without ever becoming a heroin addict. Most people can look at folks around them and see this for themselves, too.

Nonetheless, politicians and pot prohibitionists are trying to use the recent rise in opioid-related deaths as an argument against decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. They've been trotting out Reefer Madness-era tropes, like pot being a "gateway drug."

There's never been anything to the gateway drug claim. What we have seen recently is that some cities where marijuana has not been legalized are dealing with a spike in use of legal synthetic "weed" (a.k.a. Spice or K2)–generally mystery substances that can cause a lot more health harms than real cannabis can.

There's also some evidence that marijuana use can help those recovering from opioid addiction to stay clean. "What we've come to understand is that marijuana in many instances is an exit drug, not a gateway drug," said New Hampshire state Representative Renny Cushing (D), who is sponsoring a bill to legalize marijauna sales in his state.

It's high time we stopped thinking of illegal drugs as some magic category that confers danger, rather than simply things that gained illicit status through quirks of history. (In terms of actual harm potential, it would make much more sense to ban alcohol or worry about its "gateway" potential than to do so with marijuana.) Only by taking individual substances for what they are–not the big scary category we've randomly put them in–can we craft policies that preserve freedom and address health risks.

Anything else is just asking for more people in prison plus more opioid deaths.


The second episode of Eugene Volokh's free-speech series is here.


  • It's Ariana Grande's world, we're just living in it:
  • These numbers come from the U.K. but line up with what American surveys tend to find, too: