February 4, 2011

Opening the Gateway

Justin Katz

Drug legalization isn't an issue about which I'm passionate; when it comes to marijuana, I'm pretty much ambivalent. The fact that Froma Harrop supports legalization does make me wonder whether the opposite view might be wiser. In that regard, Providence College history professor Richard Grace makes some reasonable points:

One wonders whether the real goal of the editorial and the column is to overshoot the mark deliberately, so that a compromise position could be broad toleration for marijuana while heavier substances would remain illegal. Would legal toleration of marijuana improve our society?

As a "gateway drug" marijuana leads many teenagers toward cocaine. A Columbia University study found that teenagers who smoke marijuana are 85 times more likely to move on to cocaine use than their peers who do not smoke marijuana. Those who think of marijuana as relatively harmless need to consider a Dec. 17 Journal report, "Reale gets 8 years in death of Colin Foote," about a much-publicized trial involving a fatal accident. Before sentencing the driver to a prison term, Judge Edwin Gale concluded: "I find that marijuana killed Colin Foote [the victim] . . . The defendant [Laura Reale] was high on marijuana at the time of that fatal crash."

If she had been using a legally available drug, would the result have been any different? Or, would the removal of drug-interdiction programs be more likely to produce more such accidents, more such wasted lives, more such grieving families?

To be sure, drug-induced accidents already occur, and drug related crimes are already a problem. Honestly, I wouldn't hazard to guess which way the needle would move upon legalization. Judging by stories from before I was born, my own experience as a teenager, and the experiences of acquaintances I've known since, there has never been much difficulty procuring marijuana.

It seems to me, too, that drawing a bright line of legality between pot and other drugs, like cocaine, would reduce the degree to which it's a "gateway." The question is what line it leads people across. Alcohol already introduces people to the practice of introducing foreign substances into the body to alter perceptions. The main difference with grass is that it introduces them to skirting the law to do so.

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I suspect there are many more factors, such as social pressure from peers, which bear on whether marijuana might serve as a gateway drug to other drugs such as cocaine.

But any analysis of possible legalization should probably also include the seemingly insane costs of prohibition, including the vast sums spent annually for expensive prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and other aspects of the legal systems; extra jails, ruined lives spent in jail; heightened violence throughout society; drug profits funding terrorist and other more serious illegal activities internationally, and on and on. And the success of prohibition? I'd opt to put all of those resources towards education and other far more productive things.

Posted by: Bill at February 4, 2011 7:49 AM

Richard Grace uses some of the most tired fallacies, propaganda, and poor logic I've ever seen coming from a prohibitionist. His lack of critical thinking and wild assumptions based on no support whatsoever are shocking, especially coming from a history professor.

Look at this gem:

"As a "gateway drug" marijuana leads many teenagers toward cocaine. A Columbia University study found that teenagers who smoke marijuana are 85 times more likely to move on to cocaine use than their peers who do not smoke marijuana."

Marijuana is an illegal drug. Cocaine is an illegal drug. A teenager who has no problem breaking the law and "doing drugs" is of course 85 times more likely to do it with another drug, even though there is absolutely no causal link, medical or otherwise, proven between the two. By this broken logic, cigarettes are a "gateway drug" to alcoholism, and vice versa.

Then there is the usual shameless fearmongering and slippery slope fallacies:

"And what would be the effect of the legalized drugs on social behavior? Would it be legal to drive a car after using a legal drug?"

And ignorance of a direct parallel from HISTORY of all things:

"Who would supply those drugs?I think we all know who would supply them — the same thugs who supply the current market. Legalizing drugs would hardly end the “drug-fueled bloodbath” that she refers to. It would perpetuate the problem, tempting more people into the legal market, and then hooking them on addictions that would only be fed by corruption in the regulation system or by a black market."

Right, because we have gangs warring in the streets to control the regulated alcohol trade, just like we did during alcohol prohibition. Oh wait, actually the complete opposite happened and the alcohol-based mobs all disappeared.

This professor is an embarrassment to the college.

Posted by: Dan at February 4, 2011 7:52 AM

Damn. I read this post earlier and figured I'd get to it in a few minutes, but Dan made all the points I wanted to.

Gateway drug? Someone who is likely to break the law for one is more likely to break the law for another. What if marijuana was legal? You'd have a lot more teenagers using it and that "85%" number would be a lot lower because cocaine would still be illegal and those teens who wouldn't have touched the "illegal" marijuana still won't touch the illegal cocaine. It's fun what you can do with studies and numbers when you have a bias going into it.

Can someone tell me why tobacco is really legal? Is there any other substance as physically damaging? Imagine if tobacco were just discovered and cigarettes were just invented and a company tried to get them passed by the FDA with everything that we now know about them? It sure makes Irwin Mainway's children's toy, "Bag O' Glass".

Clearly marijuana growers need a better, more well financed lobby. Too bad they're all sitting on their couch eating Fritos and watching Scooby-Doo re-runs.

Posted by: Patrick at February 4, 2011 8:41 AM

Dan has it right.

Prof. Grace's points are not at all "reasonable."

In using the Columbia University study to conclude that marijuana is a "gateway drug," the professor engages in the classic "post hoc" fallacy -- inferring that just because one thing happened after another, the latter was caused by the former.

Has anyone considered whether teens who illegally drank alcohol are 85 times more likely to move onto cocaine than those who didn't? If that were the case, I wouldn't be surprised.

And nobody on a "high" should be allowed to drive, whether the substance was a Martini or high-potency reefer.

Justin, if agreeing with me is too painful an act, why don't you agree with William F. Buckley and Milton Friedman instead?

Posted by: Froma Harrop at February 4, 2011 9:10 AM

"Judge Edwin Gale concluded: "I find that marijuana killed Colin Foote [the victim] . . . The defendant [Laura Reale] was high on marijuana at the time of that fatal crash"

This is the same old reasoning used in "gun control". "Guns" kill people so let's remove them. Sorry, people kill people. The gun is simply an instrument.

"Marijuana" did not kill Colin Foote, if it did, it wouldbe locked up. Laura Reale killed Colin Foote. Marijuana use does not aid her case, but would the result have been different if she had simply been on her cell phone? Would we hear "a cell phone killed Colin Foote"?

The bottom line cause is simply negligent behavior, be it marijuana or a cell phone.

So far, my brushes with death have only been close, but I regard the "case" against cell phones while driving around town is as strong as the case against marijuana.

Posted by: Warringotn Faust at February 4, 2011 9:11 AM

99% of those surveyed in a Zogby poll responded that they would not try cocaine or heroine if legalized. I'm firmly in that camp. I have no interest in hard drugs whatsoever. I don't even drink alcohol because I don't like the side effects (poor sleep, headache, dehydration, weight gain), and I think you would have to be mentally ill to start smoking cigarettes given the smell, surrounding property damage, expense, addiction risk, and cancer risk. Would I smoke pot if it were legal? Absolutely. In the safety of my own home on Friday nights with friends. It has none of the negative side effects of alcohol. It has no established long term negative health effects (and a number of likely benefits). I've done my research - it's good, clean, responsible fun and relaxation. The only reason I don't do it now is because I fear arrest or losing my job. And I don't subscribe to the malum prohibite notion that something can be bad simply because it is illegal.

Anyone who would even bring up cocaine or heroine as a comparison to marijuana rather than a contrast (e.g., Grace) should raise a big red flag indicating that they are grossly misinformed. The effects are like comparing night to day. It isn't even medically possible to become addicted to marijuana or overdose from it, and marijuana induces passivity rather than belligerence. Those of my friends who are experienced with drug use, unlike myself, won't even dignify calling marijuana a real drug since they consider the effects to be so benign.

Now, for some edu-tainment courtesy of The Streets:

Posted by: Dan at February 4, 2011 9:21 AM

Let me get this straight, you're a libertarian who is ambivalent about the so called war on drugs? btw, this is an area where left/right libertarians tend to be on the same page.

Posted by: Russ at February 4, 2011 9:56 AM

"To be sure, drug-induced accidents already occur, and drug related crimes are already a problem."

Sure, but what if what we have now isn't close to a 'solution' for the problem... It's now easier for a teenager to get marijuana than it is for them to get cigarettes. I'm not kidding. The drug war has failed at limiting availability; I've found enough pot to have a 'relaxing night' under my couch cushions, and I don't even use the stuff. I had a friend ask where they could get some while they stayed in town. I don't use it, so I don't know where to get it. Still, it took less time to locate a dealer and have marijuana delivered to my door than it did to have pizza delivered.

As for the 'gateway' to harder drugs, it's only natural that the (very few) people who use hard drugs would have started with 'lighter' ones before, but that doesn't mean that 'more pot smokers lead to more coke users'. I wonder if that study also looked at alcohol, which is widely considered to be the universal 'gateway drug', if you subscribe to the gateway drug theory.

Also, don't forget that only a TINY fraction of folks who 'try' cocaine or heroin end up addicted. The propaganda machine doesn't like to admit it, but there are FAR more casual cocaine users out there than people with 'problems'. Heroin is a bit of a different beast, probably because you pretty much have to already be pretty far down the path of chronic pain, depression, and addiction (usually to legally-obtained opiate-based prescriptions) to seek out heroin. Heroin also has a tendency to 'repel' first-time users who aren't already thoroughly addicted to opiates, your first time as a new user will likely be spent violently vomiting and trying to stay awake.

What my big problem with the current push for decriminalization is is that it doesn't go FAR ENOUGH to get all the benefits thereof. If you merely 'decriminalize' possession of small amounts, you send fewer people to prison, and you see an uptick in both use and crime amongst dealers. If you comprehensively decriminalize, regulate the conditions of sale and production, and apply taxation, you would actually see local production (read: jobs), tax revenues, a decrease in overdoses (usually due to varying purity), and completely cut-off the legs of the violent street trade.

I've lost too many friends and family to drug use, overdose, and crime over shady drug deals to believe that our war on drugs is at all effective. I think there's just a certain small portion of any given population that's going to act like idiots, kill themselves, or get addicted to drugs. If you actually manage to take away the car keys, guns, and drugs they'll just plow their bicycles into trees, hang themselves, or drink themselves to death.

Posted by: mangeek at February 4, 2011 11:36 AM

Russ, It's pretty clear to me that Justin is -not- a libertarian. A fair portion of his posts concern social issues relating to issues like 'cultural decay', morality, and tradition. If I had to, I would classify him as the archetype of the thoughtful neoconservative. He's a social conservative, and willing to use the government to maintain socially conservative ideals.

Heck, I'm not a 'libertarian'... I used to call myself one, but I'm actually more of just a 'small-government liberal' or 'Rockerfeller Republican'. I don't think eliminating taxes will totally unchain the economy, and I respect that lots of things -do- need regulation, that social programs are needed to prop-up the 'losers' of the free-market, while preserving their right to 'move freely amongst the classes'.

The left has been using 'libertarian' as a bad word for about a year now, and they usually mis-apply it to neoconservatives. Generally, libertarians oppose Roe v. Wade on grounds that it should be a state issue (not because they have an opposing but just as authoritarian view on abortion), would want to use the military only as a defensive tool, and eschew the 'nationalization' of so many things in this country, from health care, to education, to taxation. I think your average libertarian is probably more liberal than your average Democrat, but they'd like to see their state/federal taxes flip-flopped, so the federal government was very small, and only did things that states couldn't.

Posted by: mangeek at February 4, 2011 12:50 PM

"The left has been using 'libertarian' as a bad word for about a year now..."

Well, not in my case. I consider myself left libertarian, the difference being a belief in economic justice as a natural right. Do they owe us a living? Of course they do!

And I agree that many Dems are considerably more conservative.

Posted by: Russ at February 4, 2011 6:42 PM


It isn't a matter of being pained to agree with you. There's nothing personal, here. I've just found your arguments to be so consistently erroneous that I'm inclined to give the other side additional consideration on the basis of your disagreement with it.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 4, 2011 7:41 PM


I'm not "willing to use the government to maintain socially conservative ideals" just for the sake of maintaining them. I'm only for it when government "neutrality" would create an advantage for forces that seek to limit natural rights and liberty.

With regard to Russ, much of his commentary here — particularly that which seems entirely unrelated to the points actually made — can be explained with the assumption that he will see me as whatever he needs to see me as in order to justify his sense of intellectual and moral superiority.

Posted by: Justin Katz at February 4, 2011 8:24 PM

Q - ...you're a libertarian who is ambivalent about the so called war on drugs?
A - Nothing to see here. Move along.
[Read, I'm not really a libertarian.]

Posted by: Russ at February 7, 2011 12:33 PM

"...particularly that which seems entirely unrelated to the points actually made"

I admit that I frequently find myself at a loss as to what point Justin is trying to make (sorry to offend, but your writing style can be a bit obtuse).

Posted by: Russ at February 7, 2011 12:56 PM

Russ-nothing against Justin,but sometimes I have difficulty with figuring out what he is saying-it might just be me on that,because I know I find some people's writing easier to follow than others'.No value judgement intended.
Sometimes even the same writer can have two unequal styles-denis Johnson comes to mind.
I flew through his "Nobody Move"and am slogging through "Tree of Smoke".

Posted by: joe bernstein at February 7, 2011 1:37 PM

I usually don't mention it since it smacks of a personal attack, but Justin keeps bring it up along with his own tired cliches about my supposed elitism so what the heck. btw, I chalk that up to psychological projection (we liberals usually don't have such a problem accepting differences of opinion without bruising our ego).

Posted by: Russ at February 7, 2011 1:50 PM
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