Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy released a 40-year study that showed a wide range of data on drug and alcohol usage. This study joins other studies in debunking the myth that marijuana is a gateway drug—that is, a drug that opens the door to other, harder drug use and abuse.
The study, which was made up of U.S. government data that was collected starting in 1975, found that from 1979 to 2014, the number of people who used marijuana in a lifetime rose from 28% to 44.2%. However, the number of people who used marijuana in the last year of the study decreased—from 16% to 13.2%—as did the number of people who’d used marijuana—from 13% to 8.4%—in the last month.
These numbers show low levels of frequent marijuana usage as well as a general decrease in semi-consistent marijuana usage. Though individuals in the study tried marijuana more often, they used it less often on average than people did in 1979.
Meanwhile, the rates of alcohol use in the study’s participants decreased slightly in all three categories between the years of 1979 and 2014, but overall usage of alcohol was much higher than that of marijuana. The number of people who’d used alcohol in their lifetime went from 89% to 82.1% between 1979 and 2014. Those folks who used alcohol in the study’s final year went down from 72% to 66.6%, while the number of those imbibing in the last month went from 63% to 52.7%.
Alcohol Usage Overshadows Marijuana Consumption
Comparing marijuana use to that of alcohol, it’s evident that folks consume alcohol at much higher rates than they ingest marijuana. The rate of monthly alcohol use was almost six times higher than that of monthly marijuana usage. The study also found that illegal substances, a category that marijuana is considered to be a part of in this study, made up less than 20% of substance abuse disorders, while alcohol made up the rest.
The study was compiled with the help of Brian C. Bennett, a former career analyst and current faculty member of the University of Virginia. The data came from The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which involved the annual interviews of 70,000 people ages 12 and older. As well, 50,000 teens were interviewed with annual follow-ups to more closely monitor use in that age group.
Across all of the years of this large study, alcohol was found to be the most used and abused substance. Over 10,000 people died from alcohol-related issues in the last year of the study, compared to zero deaths related to cannabis usage.
Turns out Marijuana Isn’t the Gateway Drug
Based on the study’s findings, Baker Institute for Public Policy Director William Martin said, “Marijuana's reputation as a 'gateway' drug is not supported, even for more marijuana use. More than half of respondents under 60 have used it during their lifetime, but fewer than 10 percent use it regularly.” This study is just one of many that has disproved the idea of the “gateway” theory.
A study released in the Journal of School Health showed that alcohol—over marijuana and tobacco—was overwhelmingly the first drug used by teens. The study, which was conducted by Texas A&M and the University of Florida, used data from the Monitoring the Future survey.
The survey, which interviewed 2,800 12th graders from across the U.S., found that 54% of respondents used alcohol before any other drug, compared to only 10% who used marijuana first. The study also found that the younger the teens were when they first tried alcohol, the more likely they were to try other drugs and use them more frequently.
Instead, Alcohol Is the Gateway Drug
A 2008 study out of the American School Health Association also looked at the Monitoring the Future data and ranked it on the Guttman Scale, which is a way to order survey responses to create a binary outcome. The study found that, “results from the Guttman Scale indicated that alcohol represented the ‘gateway’ drug, leading to the use of tobacco, marijuana and other illicit substances.”
The study also stressed the importance of focusing school drug education resources on alcohol use and abuse, rather than being spread equally across all drug types.
Cannabis Use Remains Stable in U.S. States Where It’s Legal
The Baker Institute’s Issue Brief, associated with the publication of the Rice University study, noted that while marijuana is still the most widely used “illegal” drug, there have been no major spikes in usage in the U.S. states of Colorado and Washington where cannabis has been legalized. Though more people have used marijuana in their lifetime, the percentage of people who use marijuana consistently is much lower than those who have used it overall, and is much lower than those who use alcohol consistently.
This lines up with the words of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper who said, “It seems like the people that were smoking before are mainly the people that are smoking now.” Marijuana usage hasn’t seen a major increase that people against the legalization of cannabis predicted would happen with the plant’s legalization.
Alcohol Use Associated With Increased Substance Abuse
The Baker Institute study still counts cannabis as an illegal product and doesn’t differentiate between medical and recreational use. This study definitively dismisses the idea that marijuana could be considered a gateway drug. By the numbers alone, alcohol use is dramatically higher than cannabis use, and the majority of teens try alcohol before any other drug.
All of this data show that if any drug is a gateway to other drug usage, it’s alcohol. It’s important to note that this study shows an interesting trend of decreased use of both cannabis and alcohol, but alcohol usage is still very high and is associated with high levels of substance abuse.
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