I don’t know why Sheriff Jim Manfre and the Flagler County Commission are dragging their feet on Manfre’s proposal to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Manfre floated the idea almost four months ago after seeing it done in three other counties, with Volusia, the fourth, talking about it. Volusia has since done it. The county commission has yet to talk about it. It’s giving detractors and myth-pushers–or the election’s opportunists–plenty of time to spread their falsehoods. Meanwhile, every week another batch of local residents get ensnared in more stupid pot busts.
One of those falsehoods made its appearance before the county commission Monday. It’s the marijuana-as-gateway-drug argument. It never fails. Mention pot legalization in any context–medical, recreational, non-criminal–and a man named Pavlov will start yelling GATEWAY DRUG! It’s a haze of propaganda as old as Reefer Madness, the 1936 government movie that traces a teen’s puff of pot to a homicidal hit-and-run accident, a rape and a suicide. Reefer Madness would be a comedy as hilarious as Cheech and Chong’s best if it weren’t still a mirror of drug policy.
President Carter tried to decriminalize marijuana as far back as 1977. He sent the proposal to congress. Visionary as he was, he paired it with a request that more effort be put into studying the ill effects of prescription drugs, which no one was worried about back then. A phony scandal about drug use in the White House quickly sank the proposal and recast Carter into what every president has been on drug policy since Nixon: a propagandist cowering to the cop-and-prison lobbyists.
Twenty years after Carter even the former executive editor of the allegedly liberal New York Times, A.M. Rosenthal, was peddling the lie in his columns. He was bashing President Clinton for nominating William Weld, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, ambassador to Mexico. Weld’s crime? He supported medical marijuana legalization. Back then marijuana legalization had about as much popular support as legalized gay marriage. “As marijuana is a gateway to the use of cocaine, heroin and other ‘hard’ narcotics,” Rosenthal wrote, “so legalization of marijuana is the most likely gateway to legalizing all narcotics.” Obviously the Times’ fact-checkers were too stoned to catch the lie.
The gateway drug argument may sound persuasive. After all, most harder-drug users were once pot users. But to then conclude that most pot users will graduate to harder drugs is just plain dumb. If anything, by the time students graduate high school, they’re likelier to do do less than more drugs. The numbers tell the story.
The University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future study has been surveying youth drug habits more thoroughly than anyone since 1975. Yes, teens do drugs, they smoke, they drink. But any look at those numbers shows to what extent the propagandists exaggerate that use and ignore the more serious issues with cigarettes, alcohol and legal prescription drugs.
The survey tracks all sorts of drug use in middle and high school based on drug use every day, in the past month, in the past year, and over a lifetime. The different categories add indispensable nuance to the hysteria over drug use. For example, while 2015 numbers show that 44 percent of all 12th graders used pot sometime in their lifetime, and 15 percent of 8th graders did–numbers that would fit well in the panic narrative of the anti-drug brigades–the numbers quickly lose their force when broken out: 12th graders’ use of pot sometime in the past year falls to 35 percent, then to 21 percent in the past month, and to 6 percent when it comes to daily use (and 1 percent among 8th graders), same as in 1999.
Take past-month use of marijuana among all 8th, 10th and 12th graders combined. It’s actually been falling for several years, but taking the worst of the past four years, 15 percent reported using in the past month, about the same proportion as in 1995. That should mean that, proportionately, of the 250 million adult Americans, 37 million should have gated their way to using harder drugs.
In fact, according to the federal government’s own numbers, Americans who’ve used cocaine, heroin inhalants or hallucinogens in the past month combined doesn’t even crack 4 million. Add prescription drugs and marijuana, and you’re still 13 million short. That alone should dispense with the myth. But it won’t.
Look at the survey numbers again: the point to some fractional use by students of harder drugs, but in every case, usage has remained fractional–mostly well below 1 percent except for slightly more popular inhalants–over two decades and a half. There’s not been an epidemic, there’s not been a sustained increase of use in any drug, in any category, there’s not been a gateway to any drug. The problem has always been and remains cigarettes and alcohol, not narcotics. That, too, should dispense with the myth.
But it won’t. The war on drugs was never built on reason. It’s closer to a religion. Take away one of its fundamental tenets, like the gateway drug myth, and the whole thing might collapse. So it goes on, stoning our elected officials into fear or inaction.