If marijuana makes its users more likely to try more dangerous drugs, why does that mean it should be illegal?
It would seem that we actually have a very urgent reason to legalize it. By criminalizing marijuana, we have ensured that marijuana users have as much contact with other illegal drugs as possible. We have made it impossible to buy marijuana from anyone other than a drug dealer. Marijuana is a gateway drug in large part because it is illegal.
One wonders if alcohol would be (even more of) a gateway drug if it were illegal also.
But on a closer look, the “Gateway” argument barely gets off the ground, and relies on at least one assumption that should be dismissed in many contexts besides this one.
The “Gateway” argument against the legalization of marijuana, recently advanced by Joseph Biden, usually goes something like this:
1. Gateway drugs are bad
2. Marijuana is a gateway drug
3. All bad things should be illegal
4. Therefore, marijuana should be illegal (to some extent)
Proponents of legalization instinctively attack “gateway drugs are bad” on empirical grounds, but this is not the weak point in the argument. The weakness is in point 3: “All bad things should be illegal”.
The “All bad things should be illegal” assumption is pervasive enough that many proponents of legalization support it without thinking. “Marijuana cannot possibly be a gateway drug, because that would make it bad, and everyone knows that all bad things should be illegal, and I would really prefer if marijuana were not illegal!”
The psychological strength of this assertion comes from its ability to mask the costs of criminalizing marijuana.
Criminalization is colossally expensive, requiring ridiculous police and court resources, and incurring the severe opportunity cost of arresting decent people and tarring their records. But condemning complete strangers as dangerous or low-class is completely free, and for some, even therapeutic.
By merely condemning marijuana, many conservatives are also vicariously expressing their contempt for those they think use marijuana: the young, black, poor, and urban; in short, constituencies associated with the Democratic Party. When the debate is framed in this way, the relative status and prestige of out-groups is kept at the front of one’s mind, and the costs of a police state at the back.
This subtle mental substitution of criminalization for petty condemnation has managed to cultivate a dogmatic criminalization constituency, because it makes criminalization as easy and satisfying as disliking strangers.
The question “should be marijuana be legalized?” is frequently interpreted as “is marijuana good?” or “are marijuana users good people?” Neither of these are fair translations because they encourage you to ignore the cost that marijuana users suffer, and instead focus on your own feelings, which in isolation, harm nobody.
If marijuana use makes bad things more likely, then that would certainly be a strike against it, but this harm does not in itself justify criminalization since criminalization is costly also. The proponent of criminalization must prove the following:
1. The harm marijuana use causes is reduced by criminalizing it
2. and that this reduction in harm outweighs the harm of criminalization
If I agree that marijuana is a waste of time, or even bad for one’s health, or even a gateway drug, all your hard work is still ahead of you. This new standard is much less friendly to the prohibitionist because it requires him to account for the harm of criminalization, and challenges the prohibitionist to actually prove that criminalization will reduce the harm he has identified.
Neither of these two points are satisfied if we assume that marijuana is a gateway drug.
If a marijuana user is amicable towards more harmful narcotics as a consequence of using marijuana, then that user still has to physically acquire those narcotics. That shouldn’t be too hard, since his weed dealer is a drug dealer and a criminal.
By criminalizing marijuana, the exposure that marijuana users have to illicit drugs increases, by exposing them to drug dealers who may traffick those drugs (they are certainly more likely to sell more dangerous drugs than an ordinary dispensary would be).
Legalizing marijuana would weaken the social and commercial networks between marijuana users and drug dealers. It would also reduce the opportunities that someone already inclined to use other drugs has to actually get them. The local shop that he buys marijuana from doesn’t carry cocaine, but the black market carries both. Some may keep trying, but others will not.
If weed is a gateway, then we have yet another reason to legalize it (as if that list weren’t long enough already).
The harm marijuana creates is actually increased by criminalizing it. And obviously, if there is no net reduction in harm, then that net reduction cannot outweigh the harm caused by criminalization itself.
Most marijuana users would probably be better off reading a book, but they are also better off smoking marijuana than they would be in handcuffs, which was the point to begin with. The “Gateway” argument gets you where every argument against legalization gets you: nowhere.