Americans contemplate the legalization of cannabis

Jan 24, 2020

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, currently the leading Democratic contender in the race for the U.S. presidency, recently told voters at a Las Vegas convention that he wants more evidence as to whether using cannabis could be a “gateway” to the use of harder drugs before it’s legalised in the US.

“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, 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,”

Joe Biden, former U.S. Vice President

However, these statements faced criticism from other Democrats, including Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, who said that there is enough evidence and that cannabis use should be legalised.

So far in the U.S., 33 states have already legalized medical cannabis, in addition to 11 states and Washington DC which have legalized its recreational use. However, cannabis use remains illegal at the federal level.

There is currently no clear scientific consensus on the ‘gateway drug’ theory pertaining to cannabis use. According to some data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), individuals who are addicted to cannabis are also three times more likely to be addicted to heroin. However, other data shows that consumption of alcohol and tobacco also correlate with hard drug use. Since correlation does not establish causation, it is difficult to establish a causal link between cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco use and use of hard drugs.

According to the results of a recent study published by RAND Corporation researchers, there is no conclusive evidence of the effect of cannabis liberalization on the use of other substances, including alcohol and tobacco.

In contrast, other studies suggest that cannabis legalization can decrease hard drug use. As both the U.S. and Canada face an opioid epidemic, some data has shown that cannabis legalization can decrease opioid deaths, potentially due to individuals using cannabis to manage their chronic pain instead of turning to opioid medications and illegal drugs.  

“You are never able to establish a clear connection between using [cannabis] and using other drugs because there are so many other contributing factors that you can’t control for in the research.”

Denise Kandel, researcher at the Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York, told BBC News.

Although data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health has shown that heroin and cocaine use has increased in some states which have legalized cannabis compared to pre-legalization numbers, similar increases in hard drug use have been observed in states that did not legalize cannabis use.

Although cannabis has potential risks of dependence, overuse and non-lethal overdoses, there is a lack of evidence to identify it as a gateway drug.