Breaking Through

Cannabis legalization is a growing reality: 20 states permit medical marijuana use, and Colorado and Washington have legalized it for all adults. But as more states line up — and more people light up — Columbia researchers wonder: what’s on the other side?

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2014
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But Anslinger’s thorniest nemesis was an Indiana University sociologist named Alfred Lindesmith ’31TC. Lindesmith, who studied opiate addiction, rejected Anslinger’s portrayals of addicts as crazed killers and rapists, and sought to dispel these notions in articles in small legal journals. According to a 1998 article about Lindesmith and Anslinger in the Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, Anslinger retaliated by demanding retractions and enlisting people to write discrediting rebuttals.

Anslinger’s Lindesmith problem soon came into full view. In 1946, the National Film Board of Canada released a documentary called Drug Addict, which depicted addicts as sick people in need of help. When Lindesmith traveled to Canada for a screening, Anslinger appealed to the Canadians to forbid the professor from seeing it. Canada declined. But Anslinger wasn’t finished. Fearful that the film’s graphic scenes of drug use “would do incalculable damage in the way of spreading drug addiction,” he wrote to the Canadian government requesting that the film not be shown in the US. This time, to Lindesmith’s regret, Canada complied.

In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, former president of Columbia and a Scotch whisky man, signed the Narcotic Control Act. It was America’s harshest drug law yet: except in cases of possession for first-time offenders, the law eliminated suspended sentences, probation, and parole. Ten years later, Lindesmith, in an introduction to a collection of essays on cannabis titled The Marihuana Papers, wrote, “the use of marihuana has in the past tended to be concentrated in the lower, underprivileged classes, whereas alcohol is used in all strata. This sociological fact may account in considerable part for the persistence of the marihuana myths, for it means that most writing on the weed and its effects has been done by persons of the middle and upper classes, who themselves use alcohol rather than marihuana, who often have no direct experience with marihuana or with the social types who use it, and who consequently tend to forget about alcohol when they express their disapproval of the alleged effects of the weed on persons of the lower strata.”

At that point, in the late 1960s, in a climate of body counts, assassinations, police riots, and the draft, cannabis was becoming popular with white middle-class youth. President Richard Nixon, who saw marijuana as a token of antiwar sentiment and moral degeneracy, took action. In 1970, he signed the Controlled Substances Act, which, among other things, divided drugs into five classifications, with marijuana listed temporarily on Schedule I, pending an examination by a Nixon-appointed task force led by Pennsylvania governor Raymond Shafer. In June 1971, with the Shafer Commission still at work, Nixon commenced the War on Drugs, calling for a major expansion of the antidrug effort.

The Shafer Commission released its findings in 1972. It determined that, in the users studied, “no significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to their marihuana smoking.” The report refuted claims about a link to violence, and concluded that, “considering the range of social concerns in contemporary America, marihuana does not, in our considered judgment, rank very high. We would deemphasize marihuana as a problem.”

None of this jibed with Nixon’s political message, or his personal scorn for cannabis, which he set down on tape, with statements like, “By God, we are going to hit the marijuana thing, and I want to hit it right square in the puss.” The Shafer Report was shelved, the drug war was waged, and cannabis remains, to this day, along with heroin and LSD, a Schedule I drug. 

Entering the Gateway

In 1975, Denise Kandel ’60GSAS, a professor of sociomedical sciences in Columbia’s Department of Psychiatry and the Mailman School, and a research scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, published a paper in Science called “Stages in Adolescent Involvement in Drug Use.” Applying data from a longitudinal study of high-school students in New York State, Kandel found that adolescent drug use tended to follow a sequence of stages: from beer or wine to cigarettes or hard liquor, to marijuana, and finally to other illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin. That meant that a young person who uses one substance was at an increased risk of progressing hierarchically to the next.

There was little ado about this research at the time. But a few years later, in the early 1980s, during First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, Robert DuPont, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, echoing Kandel’s hypothesis, began using the term “gateway” to refer to alcohol and cigarettes. By logical extension, marijuana, which stood seductively at the gates of the really bad stuff, became the poster child of the gateway theory.

“At the beginning, I did not like the term at all, and I will tell you why,” says Kandel. “In the 1930s, a study was done on the drug behavior of people incarcerated at the federal facility for heroin addicts in Lexington, Kentucky. The study found that 100 percent of those addicts had used marijuana. The term ‘stepping stone’ was developed to indicate that marijuana was the step on the way to heroin. The implication was that once you started marijuana, you were inevitably going to become a heroin addict. It is true that if you use marijuana, you have a higher likelihood of using other illicit drugs, including heroin. But this increased likelihood does not imply that you are now fated to become a heroin addict. Only a fraction of all marijuana users become heroin addicts. Some people associate the ‘gateway’ concept with the stepping-stone theory, and do not differentiate between the two. This has given the gateway theory a negative connotation.”

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