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SUGGESTING MARIJUANA IS A 'GATEWAY DRUG' NO LONGER VALID ARGUMENT, EXPERT SAYS -- Yet studies show drug more potent, filled with additives

Aug 18, 2005
Martin Derbyshire, Staff Writer

If by moving towards marijuana decriminalization politicians are saying it's OK to get high, the message is getting through.

"If you're in it to have a good time, it's OK to smoke pot," said Jesse, 18, one of a handful of teenagers interviewed in a Richmond Hill neighbourhood last week. "If you're using it to hide from your problems, that's another story."

Most teenagers don't consider pot a hard drug, said Vanessa, 16.

"It's not as bad as all these other drugs like cocaine or heroin," she said. "Nobody dies from smoking weed."

To most, pot is just another form of entertainment, such as video games and TV, said Stephen, 16.

"As long as I get good grades and do what I am supposed to do, why shouldn't I smoke pot?" he said. "It's not like it's affecting me."

And this attitude is catching on with drug experts, who, for years, suggested marijuana was a "gateway drug." They are now backing away from that hypothesis.

But while attitudes toward marijuana may have softened, the drug has gotten more potent.

"It's not your mom and dad's pot out there these days," said Wende Wood of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. "The potency is much stronger and that strength differs from batch to batch."

Marijuana tested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the late 1990s was an average of 5.5 to 6 per cent tetrahydrocannibinol (THC), the psycho-active ingredient found in the drug, according to reports.

Health Canada performed similar tests on pot samples in 2003 and found the average potency was 9.7 per cent THC.

It's also hard to say exactly what is in the pot teenagers are smoking.

"It's like with ecstasy. You really can't find any pure ecstasy tabs out there. Most are cut with something," Ms Wood said.

"With pot, who knows what was used in process of growing it? Chemicals or fertilizers; a lot of things could be sprinkled in there."

For many years, experts warned pot use opened the door to harder, more addictive drugs.

But it's the legal framework surrounding marijuana that contributes more to it being a gateway drug than pot itself, marijuana decriminalization movement leader Dom Cramer said.

"Making it illegal forces you to buy it off people who also sell other more harmful substances," said Mr. Cramer, a founding director of the Canadian Cannabis Society, the Toronto Hemp Company and the Toronto Compassion Centre.

"People who make marijuana their drug of choice aren't any more likely to go on to other drugs than anyone else, except for the fact they have to be involved in criminal activity just to get it. Legalizing and controlling pot would make all this go away," Mr. Cramer said.

Even the addiction centre is softening its view on the gateway theory.

"I don't really buy the gateway drug argument anymore," Ms Wood said. "Some people still see it as that and, in one sense, it is true, a lot of people using harder drugs started with marijuana. But saying that it's a gateway drug in the strictest sense is like saying breast milk is a gateway drug for alcohol."

Teenagers don't put much stock in it either.

"We're not stupid," Stephen said. "Sure, one drug could lead to another, but, realistically, it's our choice."

The latest Ontario Student Drug Use Survey shows most teenagers, indeed, know when to draw the line.

While the 2003 survey says 29.6 per cent of students in grades 7 to 12 have smoked marijuana, only 4.8 per cent have tried cocaine, 4.1 per cent ecstasy and 2.7 per cent crack.

But while teenagers seem open to the idea of legal pot, their parents might not be ready to tune in, turn on and drop out again.

Fifty-one per cent of Canadians support decriminalization, according to a Fraser Institute study on attitudes toward marijuana, with younger and middle-aged Canadians holding the more liberal views on decriminalization than those older than 55.

The majority views of all age groups have softened since 1987 when the institute reported 54 per cent of Canadians were against decriminalization.

But the biggest jump is among young Canadians, up from 40 per cent to 56 per cent since 1987.

Canadians older than 55 have seen only a gradual shift toward support for decriminalization; from 35 per cent to 41 per cent in favour.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health is one group that does support decriminalization, because it says police resources could be better spent elsewhere. Ms Wood said, however, they are not ready to say pot is harmless.

"Just because it's less harmful doesn't mean it's without its harms," she said.

Although long-term effects are hard to track, smoking pot is certainly as harmful on the lungs as smoking cigarettes, Ms Wood said.

Teenagers with mental health issues may also be at risk.

"It's kind of like a birthday party," she said. "There are 10 kids there who have birthday cake and they all get a sugar buzz, but what if one of the 10 kids has diabetes. And it's hard to know who that tenth one is."

With teenagers becoming more knowledgeable about drugs, using scare tactics to try to keep them off drugs is about as effective as former United States first lady Nancy Reagan's "just say no" campaign.

Ms Wood said the centre just tries to give teenagers the facts and hopes they make the right decision.

"We try to talk about the effect it may have on their lives," she said.

"You're not going to overdose on marijuana like you might with crystal meth or cocaine either, but you might be sick. And everyone forgets, they may be moving toward decriminalization but it's not legal, they're not there yet. You can still be charged and having a criminal record can really change your life."

But are those tactics working on today's youth?

"They tell us all the facts about pot. The legal issues, the health issues, but there's still something about it that's really good," Jesse said. "If there wasn't we wouldn't be talking about it, or smoking it."

Contact Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at and Health Canada at



и The percentage of Canadians 15 or older who admitted to using marijuana has nearly doubled to 14 per cent since 1989, with the highest rates among teenagers, according to a Health Canada survey on marijuana use.

и An estimated three million people aged 15 or older said they used pot at least once in the year before the 2002 survey.

и A total of 6.5 per cent of Canadians reported using marijuana in 1989, 7.4 per cent in 1994 and 12.2 per cent in 2002.

и Almost four in 10 teenagers aged 18 or 19 reported using marijuana in the year before the survey while three in 10 15 to 17-year-olds admitted using the drug.

и More than 10 million people reported having tried pot at least once in their lifetime.

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