Joe Biden

If Biden Won't Support Legalization Until We Know Whether Marijuana Is a 'Gateway Drug,' He Will Never Support Legalization

The correlation between cannabis consumption and use of other drugs is clear, but its meaning remains controversial and probably always will.


Former Vice President Joe Biden says he is not prepared to support ending the federal ban on marijuana until science clarifies "whether or not it is a gateway drug." Taking him at his word, that means Biden, a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, will never support marijuana legalization.

During a town hall in Las Vegas on Saturday, Biden said states should be free to legalize marijuana but once again reserved judgment about whether national prohibition should be repealed. "The truth of the matter is, there's not nearly been enough evidence that has been acquired as to whether or not it is a gateway drug," he said. "It's a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally. I want to make sure we know a lot more about the science behind it….It is not irrational to do more scientific investigation to determine, which we have not done significantly enough, whether or not there are any things that relate to whether it's a gateway drug or not."

Contrary to Biden's implication, there has been a lot of research on this question during the last half-century or so. While studies have consistently found an association between cannabis consumption and use of other illegal drugs, the nature of that relationship remains controversial, and it probably always will.

One possible explanation for the correlation that worries Biden is that the experience of using marijuana makes people more likely to try other illegal drugs. That's the explanation Biden has in mind when he says marijuana might be a "gateway drug," a concern he also voiced during the Obama administration. But another possible explanation is that people who use marijuana are different from people who don't in ways that also affect their likelihood of using other drugs. Pre-existing differences in genetics, personality, and environment could explain both tendencies.

The psychologist Andrew Morral and his colleagues at the RAND Drug Policy Research Center have shown that an underlying propensity to use drugs, combined with the relative availability of different intoxicants, could entirely account for the three phenomena emphasized by advocates of the gateway theory: 1) that people tend to use marijuana before other illegal drugs, 2) that people who use marijuana are more likely to use other illegal drugs, and 3) that the likelihood of progression increases with the frequency of marijuana use. Their mathematical model did not disprove the gateway theory, but it did prove that the gateway theory is not necessary to explain these observations. Morral et al. concluded that "available evidence does not favor the marijuana gateway effect over the alternative hypothesis that marijuana and hard drug initiation are correlated because both are influenced by individuals' heterogenous liabilities to try drugs."

Several studies have sought to test the gateway theory by taking into account other variables that may be independently associated with drug use. A longitudinal study of teenagers and young adults in New Zealand, for example, found a strong association between frequency of cannabis consumption and use of other illegal drugs after adjustment for nearly three dozen potential confounding variables. But as Morral et al. pointed out, even such extensive efforts to control for confounders are unlikely to do so perfectly. They calculated that when adjustment for confounding "fails to capture just 2% of the variance in drug use propensity," marijuana users "appear to have odds of initiating hard drugs that are twice as great as non-users of marijuana." Hence "it is hardly surprising that controlling for these covariates does not eliminate the association between marijuana and hard drug use."

Another approach examines this association in twins, who share the same home environment and have similar or, in the case of monozygotic pairs, identical genes. An Australian study found that in cases where one twin had used marijuana before turning 17 and the other had not, the first twin was more than twice as likely to use opioids, regardless of whether the twins were identical or fraternal and even after adjusting for several potential confounders. A similar study based on the Vietnam Era Twin Registry found that subjects who had used marijuana before turning 18 were nearly three times as likely to use opiates as co-twins who had not. In a study of Dutch twins, the risk ratios were even higher: The subjects who had used marijuana at 17 or younger were more than 16 times as likely as their co-twins to report "hard drug" use, for instance.

Even these seemingly compelling results do not rule out the possibility that pre-existing differences account for the associations. Whatever situational factors explain why one twin uses marijuana as a minor and the other does not may also explain why one uses "hard drugs" and the other does not. "The observation that familial factors do not entirely explain the association between early cannabis use and subsequent [drug] use, while suggesting a potential causal role for cannabis use in the development of other illicit drug use, does not prove such an association," the authors of the Dutch study noted. "There may be other factors, especially aspects of the non-shared environment (e.g., peer affiliations) preceding the onset of cannabis use that might account for the observed associations."

Even if it's true that trying marijuana makes people more likely to try other drugs, the policy implications are not obvious. If "the legal status of marijuana makes it a gateway drug," as a 1999 report from the organization that became the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine surmised, legalizing cannabis could reduce consumption of other drugs. There is some evidence that has happened in states that have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use.

It's not clear what sort of research Biden imagines will answer this question once and for all, barring a controlled, randomized experiment with human subjects, which would be unethical as well as impractical. Possibly he is just leaving himself wiggle room to eventually support federal legalization (which two-thirds of Americans and three-quarters of Democrats favor) without alienating voters who are still leery of the idea.

Before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to support marijuana legalization last December, he likewise worried that "marijuana leads to other drugs, and there is a lot of proof that is true." Less than two years later, Cuomo changed his mind. The issue was not decisively resolved in the interim.

NEXT: 'We Vape, We Vote' Crowd Got Through to Donald Trump, Advisors Say

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  1. In fairness to Joe, it was apparently a gateway drug for his deadbeat son. So, maybe that warps his view a bit.

    1. If smoking a little weed and snorting a little blow gets me a $50,000 a month board position on a foreign oil company that I don't even have to show up for... show me the lines on the mirror.

      1. It did work out quite well for him.

        1. It also worked out quite well for the Biden clan in China, Romania & even the good 'ol USA when Quid Pro Joe was a US Senator!

      2. yeah is there any kind of retroactive pay for this kind of behavior?

      3. $50k per month? No, it was far more. The real number is around $3.5 million over two years.

    2. that spoilt sprog NEEDED no gateway drug. His Pappy was all the excuse and push he needed.

  2. "It's a debate, and I want a lot more before I legalize it nationally.

    Did anyone catch him on the "I" parts of this statement? Lot of "I" when he talks about legislation.

    1. It's the Obama shtick.

    2. Technically he doesn't need congress to de-schedule.

  3. Is being elected to lower office a gateway drug to the presidency?

    1. It wasn't for the current one, but some folks go straight for the hard stuff.

  4. Marijuana is a gateway drug in the sense that you have to buy it from drug dealers (in states where it's still illegal) and they might offer you other drugs.

    I haven't seen anyone reporting that they've been offered drugs other than marijuana at the dispensaries here in Colorado.

    1. Do any of the dispensaries also carry e-cigarettes or vape juice... or... FLAVORED vape juice?

      1. I get that you're joking, but in a strange twist of law everything they sell at the recreational dispensaries has to contain THC. They can't sell straight CBD products, but the gas station next door can.

        Also they sell weed vape cartridges which I imagine are weed-flavored, does that count?

        1. Seriously? The liquor store can't carry soda?

          1. Yeah I was surprised too. They have some like 25:1 CBD:THC products, but no straight CBD. I think the medical dispensaries can have straight CBD products, but since CBD has no recreational purpose they made it so that recreational stores can only sell products with recreational value, i.e. psychoactive.

            Doesn't make a lick of sense to me, but at least we've gotten past putting people in jail for weed.

    2. If I remember correctly alchohol was the gateway drug to ghanja (speaking only for myself).

  5. legalization is the McGuffin

  6. TL;DR
    But if marijuana IS a gateway drug, it is precisely because it is illegal. If marijuana is legal and I go to my neighborhood marijuana vendor, I can buy only marijuana. If marijuana is illegal, I have to go to my friendly neighborhood "dealer", who sells not only marijuana, but also every other drug. In the case of the latter, the dealer has every reason to encourage me to try other drugs. He may even give me a "taste" of something else for free if I buy a Q of weed. There is your "gateway", you fucking ignorant septuagenarian.

    1. It has more to do than that. For instance, I tried marijuana when I was 17 and so did my brother. We both grew up in the same household and both had the same experiences. However, my brother is a fucking square and I'm not. I also got laid a lot more. I was more attractive as well. The gateways weren't the drugs, but the opportunities I was presented with. The only reason I had coke-fueled parties and would wake up naked on the floor with my face smelling like private parts was because when I asked people if they wanted to party with me they would say "yes" and they would bring coke. I would never pay for that crap.

      The gateway is purely the individual.

      Or Vegas.

  7. Well .... there goes Biden's libertarian contingent. You can cram socialism, mulit-national corruption, and Corn Pop down our throats all you want, but don't you dare touch our weed.

    1. >>>Biden’s libertarian contingent

      what person made up this?

      1. OBL?

        1. is there a binary contingent?

          1. Yes, but there's only 2 of them.

      2. Nice band name.

    2. Oh child. The Democrats could run on a platform of reinstating the 18th amendment and the libertarians will - oh so reluctantly, of course - just have to vote for them because the dastardly Republican Nazi Hitler is worse.

      1. Republican sockpuppets know that honest libertarian spoiler votes topple their nazi candidates by a huge hockey-stick lever. But you can't have murdering fascism and government office perks. The ku-klux prohis and Comstock birth control banners are dying as LP vote share increases abt 80% year. Voting Gee-Oh-Pee will get you fired in a urine test, force you into a shotgun marriage or confiscate your home and bank account. Voting LP forces THEM to give up prohibition or be defeated. We got 40% more votes than the gap in the popular vote in 2016.

  8. Joe, ya big galoot. We couldn't care less.

    1. Biden should get 1000% behind full legalization of weed. It would make him a lot more entertaining- kind of like how you can find a doorknob hysterically funny when you’re high.

  9. Why hasn't Trump changed the schedules unilaterally as was asked of his predecessor?

    1. Because he opposes legalization, same as his predecessor.

    2. Because the red team still has enough holdouts on legalization that they're not totally on board, and the blue team (while they have some, but fewer) wants the credit for legalization with young voters, despite how badly they've fucked it up in the places they control. So neither group has the incentive to tell him he can do it, and he's too distracted yelling at today's episode of Fox and Friends to bother with it himself.

  10. Biden said states should be free to legalize marijuana but once again reserved judgment about whether national prohibition should be repealed.

    So if its too evil to legalize nationally why should it be legal at the state level?

    Conversely, if it can be legalized at the state level, then whats the point of keeping a national prohibition?

  11. Like weed, we better ban masturbation too since it's obviously a gateway drug to piss-play orgies.*

    *The current president is a teetotaler on one of these things.

    1. The above poster is a fucking lefty ignoramus obsessed with Trump

      1. The above poster thinks it's OK for a president to watch hookers pee on each other as long as he has an (R) after his name.

        1. I think it's okay for anyone to watch hookers pee on each other, because libertarianism, Tony.

  12. I actually think that marijuana is a gateway drug. Not because of its pharmacological effect but because of our prohibition policy.

    Briefly, it works like this:
    - Subject sees marijuana listed as a Schedule I drug, peer level to heroin and LSD.
    - Subject tries marijuana and has a comparatively mild experience.
    - Subject concludes (wrongly) that if marijuana is over-classified, other drugs likely are as well.

    The incentive to avoid dangerous drugs has been weakened, not strengthened, by the marijuana prohibition. So in that sense, yes, marijuana became a gateway to trying stronger stuff. And it's a self-inflicted wound.

    1. Every drug other than weed I've ever tried was provided by people I knew through buying weed. If I had been able to buy weed at 7-11, I'd never have met those people and never been offered those drugs. It's a gateway drug because we force people to interact with drug dealers to get it, and those drug dealers tend to have harder stuff on offer or know someone who does.

      Criminalizing them also makes those drugs more available to underage people. The black market doesn't care how old you are, selling the drugs at all is already illegal so why should they care if you're "of age" or not? When I was in high school it was much easier to get weed than it was to get booze for this reason, there were at least a dozen kids in my class selling weed but you had to know someone over 21 to get you booze.

    2. Subject concludes correctly that superstitious altruists are lying through their teeth. The altruists rationalize that their lying is OK because they pretend their fake motives justify sending someone else to point guns at people. Altruism is the gateway to self-deception, the root of all evil.

    3. You're on target.

      Even if you're a Nanny Stater, the relevant gateway issue is not whether pot use is a gateway, it's whether *illegality* of pot use is more or less of a gateway than *legality* of it.

      The *treatment* we're in a position to control as a matter of policy is legal status, not actual use.

      As you point out, there are good reasons to expect that the illegality of pot *reduces* the incremental barriers to using other illegal drugs.

  13. So crazy old Joe wants it proven safe before it's legalized?
    Here, hold my beer...

  14. Biden is a power-hungry scumbag. He will never support any reduction of government power, unless it's too politically costly to do so.


  15. Yeah, this is Joe being the moderate.

  16. Sullum concludes scientific testing "would be" unethical. By what standard? In the real world millions of experiments proved that everything the whores said about marijuana and LSD were lies. So discovering for a fact that the coercive Political State and God's Own Prohibitionists are lying about acid and weed is a gateway to discovering they are lying about whether stimulants are addictive, whether freon has anything to do with ozone and why unvarnished data show global cooling while government liars varnish temperature data to make it slope upwards on graphs.

  17. Read the drug bill Biden worked on from 1986 to 1988. Asset forfeiture justified by fake data and pseudoscience sent men with guns hera and abroad to rob banks and assets until the economy collapsed. All undamaged records of the law are hidden, but a search for "Biden-Reagan crash, 1987-88" will take you to a blog with links to the cruel and violent crap Biden and cronies signed into economy-destroying law.

  18. Once again the complete ignorance and dishonesty of the drug warrior is on full display. There's no evidence marijuana prohibition stops anyone from trying marijuana who wants to try it, therefore whether it's a gateway drug is entirely irrelevant.

    I also have it on good authority almost everyone who goes on to hard drugs started with alcohol even before marijuana. We must ban this dangerous gateway substance immediately!

    1. If not alcohol, then water!

  19. I'm not a "prolific" writer, therefore the words I should need to describe the total obfuscation of this entire premise will most certainly betray me......and jacob sollum, whom i only know by name from this publication, writing about such an issue that transcends the very comprehension of what most americans are intellectually and religiously capable of comprehending just puts him in the realm of an msnbc writer though on issues much less intellectual.

  20. Quid pro quo Joe is just another hypocritical demorat. He is beyond his time and needs to fade away to the Ukraine with is son Hunter. This old Lech is responsible for the imprisonment of literally tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands black men for minor drug crimes and who knows how many deaths of black men by police because of his vote on the 1994 crime bill. It blew me away that Obama, a half black "dude" chose him as his V P.

  21. Back in the days when the circus would come round once in a while, one of the amazing acts I remember was the ballerina, or perhaps, more apropos to this situation, a clown, would come out into one of the rings, standing straight upright, astraddle of TWO ponies, who trotted in unison and kept perfect position, enabling the rider to ride as if there were only one.

    that's what Smokeless Hopeless Joe is doing... one foot on each pony, so no matter which one the voter favours, he's riding that one.

    Let's see.. two positions, two faces, two barrels fired off the back deck, two points in the race......

  22. Truth? Who cares?

    Marijuana is a "mind-altering" drug. It's the reason people use it. Yeah, facing life is tough. Facing inescapable death is even tougher for those not suicidal.

    Marijuana can have some severely deleterious effects. It can cause psychosis, for example. So? Alcohol also has some severely deleterious effects.

    The more fundamental issue is, What to do about use of all mind-altering drugs? Is there a scientific rather than political approach? Yes.

    Excerpt from the novel, Retribution Fever:

    In the matter of drug abuse, such abuse represents a willful action not a passive happening. Prohibition has proven a failure. It had failed with alcohol. It failed with other recreational drugs. It only increases the price of such drugs and promotes corruption of political officials and law-enforcing agents on a vast scale; thereby, destabilizing entire social systems . . . foreign and domestic. Unless we make possession itself a capital crime as is the case in Southeast Asia, it will continue to fail. So-called rehabilitation has a low rate of long-term success at high cost, representing a poor investment.

    Will decriminalizing recreational, “mind-altering” drugs increase their abuse? There exists . . .

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