Measure No. 5, which would make medical marijuana legal in North Dakota, has been a subject of some debate, with many espousing support of marijuana use for pain relief and other ailments, while opponents say that the measure is poorly written, costly, and may lead to unintended consequences.

Measure No. 5, which would make medical marijuana legal in North Dakota, has been a subject of some debate, with many espousing support of marijuana use for pain relief and other ailments, while opponents say that the measure is poorly written, costly, and may lead to unintended consequences.

One question concerning unintended consequences is whether or not marijuana is a “gateway” drug: Does marijuana use lead to future use of harder drugs?

Devils Lake High School recently hosted a drug awareness forum that featured presentations from local law enforcement officers. One of the ideas that was floated during the forum involved the gateway drug theory and the potential impact of any kind of marijuana legalization on the use and abuse of other drugs. The sentiment was that not only does marijuana use lead to other crimes such as theft, but also leads to later use of more dangerous drugs.

The problem with that assertion is the lack of scientific evidence that such a relationship exists.

While law enforcement has a specific responsibility relating to crimes involving drug use, the public may be better served by a more well-rounded approach to the dispensing of information about the drug crisis in North Dakota and around the country. The U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, is on record acknowledging the lack of evidence for the gateway theory earlier this year.

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

Research into the gateway drug question has a fairly lengthy history by now. A 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, by request of Congress, came up with findings that refute the gateway theory. Via Time Magazine:

“Because underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede marijuana use, marijuana is not the most common, and is rarely the first, “gateway” to illicit drug use. There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”

The key word in the passage may be “causally.” In other words, there is a lack of evidence that marijuana causes use of other drugs; rather, marijuana use is correlated with use of other drugs, as is smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol.

That idea is borne out by the fact that there are far more marijuana users in the U.S. than cocaine and heroin combined. If marijuana indeed causes future drug use, one would logically expect those numbers to be closer to equal, and research backs this idea up: Most people who use marijuana at some point don’t report moving on to harder drugs.

Though the numbers say that marijuana experimentation and use doesn’t lead to harder drug use, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that early marijuana use in animals shows “THC's ability to ‘prime’ the brain for enhanced responses to other drugs.”

However, the report goes on to state that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances. Also, cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs and are, like marijuana, also typically used before a person progresses to other, more harmful substances. It is important to note that other factors besides biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in a person's risk for drug use.”

The report concludes by saying that rather than invest in the gateway drug theory, it may be more productive to acknowledge that those who may be predisposed to try any drug are likely try cigarettes, alcohol or marijuana first, but that they don’t predict future substance abuse.

The Lake Region certainly has a real drug problem when it comes to prescription drugs, heroin, meth, and other substances. While marijuana remains illegal, and will stay illegal for recreational use despite the outcome of the medical marijuana ballot measure, studies on marijuana as a gateway drug reveal that the theory is unsupported by science.

Whether or not that realization leads to more efficient use of community resources when it comes to addressing the drug epidemic in the region remains to be seen.