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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 19th July 2011

The frequent claim that cannabis is a ‘gateway’ drug is given further circulation by a paper from Australia where Dr. Wendy Swift has been studying cannabis for some years and the alleged link between it and other substances.

Dr. Swift’s earlier work included looking at cannabis use by teenagers and whether that provided a guide to their use of it in their 20s. This new paper, as time has passed, looks at whether people in their 20s are more or less likely to use other substances if they use cannabis.

I’ve only read the abstract of the new work because the full paper is behind a very high paywall. But, I do have the full paper from her earlier work. A 2009 paper asks, in its title, ‘Are adolescents who moderate their cannabis use at lower risk of later regular and dependent cannabis use?’

Dr Swift and her colleagues looked at cannabis use in teens and the correlation between the level of cannabis use as adolescents and the level of use in the twenties. In the conclusion the authors claim that ‘a pattern of moderating adolescent cannabis use was associated with less risk of later problematic use’.

Cannabis sativa

The new paper states, in the abstract, ‘Adolescent cannabis use predicts the onset of later illicit drug use’ but haven’t seen anything in Dr. Swift’s earlier work to justify that statement. I could spend the £24 necessary to get a look at the new paper and see if she references that claim but I’m not going to. What none of the papers I’ve read addresses is whether people who use drugs like ecstasy, cocaine and heroin would have done so if there were no such thing as cannabis.

What I mean by this is that saying that someone who uses cannabis is more likely to use other substances does not mean that the cannabis is what leads to the other substances. It simply means that people who are inclined to use psychoactive substances are inclined to use psychoactive substances.

I’ve seen nothing in Dr. Swift’s work to indicate that use of cannabis is what creates the drive to other substances. I’ve said before that I believe there may be two things about cannabis that do lead people onto other substances.

The first of these is the simple fact that people who wish to buy cannabis have to do so from criminals and those criminals may be in a position to supply other substances and, indeed, may wish to supply those substances. There may be a link because people buying cannabis get comfortable about dealing with criminals but, on balance, I don’t think that is as significant as the fact that, to obtain cannabis, people have to be willing to deal with criminals in the first place.

The second way in which, I believe, cannabis can act as a ‘gateway’ drug is when drug education is based on misinformation. In other words, when young people have been told that cannabis is extremely harmful and then find that is not the case for them, they are likely to discount everything they have been told about other substances. This could include being told that cannabis use leads on to other drugs and finding it that it doesn’t.

I appreciate that Google News entries is an imprecise way to measure the importance of a story but it is interesting that this story records nineteen entries but the another two that seem to me to be more important stories, today, about substance use only rate one mention each.

These two stories are, I think, related. The first, based on research conducted by Fiona Measham of Lancaster University, whose personal involvement in club culture helps her get better information from clubbers, says that mephedrone is the current favourite drug for clubbers indicating that those who said its use was because it was legal were wrong by saying that making it illegal, as was done in 2010, would reduce its attractiveness.

The other is that recent seizures of ecstasy have shown a marked increase in the MDMA content. As an example, police at Glastonbury found this year that the majority of ecstasy pills seized contained MDMA whereas in the previous year only one in twelve contained this substance. It seems probable that ecstasy manufacturers have found they need to improve the quality of their products to combat the popularity of mephedrone.

What all three stories suggest is that people will get drugs if they want them and they know what they want from those substances. People who want to take drugs, take drugs. That is the one clear association that no-one seems to want to address.