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August 24, 2009

A Message from the Gulag

As some may remember, Dustin Costa, out on bail in Merced County after an arrest for growing medical marijuana, and while still defending himself against those charges, was the first Californian arbitrarily arrested, held without bond, and tried in Federal Court for the same offense. His federal arrest took place within weeks of the predictable Raich verdict in 2005. Following a federal trial in Fresno he was given a punitive 15 year prison term to be served in Texas. I’ve remained in close touch with him since his sentencing in February 2007, as he continues to seek a pardon.

The following essay, with significant edits by myself, is based on our lengthy correspondence and frequent phone calls.

Can Marijuana Prevent Substance Abuse by Treating Childhood Mood Disorders?

The Gateway Theory, more properly a hypothesis, posits that “soft” drugs like marijuana somehow lead to “harder” ones like heroin. Despite its shaky scientific underpinnings, Gateway’s basic assumptions remain a cornerstone of drug war propaganda, and apparently accepted by a majority of Americans. But what if it could be shown that marijuana, contrary to Gateway beliefs, actually prevents substance abuse problems?

Through its ability to substitute for more harmful agents like alcohol and tobacco, marijuana has long enjoyed anecdotal fame among activists as a “harm reduction” agent; however, what I’m suggesting here goes well beyond that. I’m asking if marijuana could actually prevent substance abuse problems.

Dr. Tom O'Connell's published study of medical marijuana applicants suggests it could, and If replicated by others, might turn the Gateway Theory inside out. According to Dr. O'Connell, the earlier a vulnerable adolescent becomes a repetitive marijuana user, the less likely they are to have problems with alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, including heroin. Important to an understanding of his study is that until the 1960s, marijuana was relatively unknown to most Americans, especially adolescents; before then very few “kids” had ever tried it. By interviewing thousands of marijuana applicants about their drug and alcohol use, Dr. O'Connell has gathered data on marijuana use during adolescence that have long been obscured by federal policy as it was becoming America’s most popular illegal drug.

Essentially all seeking the “recommendations,” required by California law are experienced users; when considered as ten-year birth cohorts, there were few in the 60- 80 age range. The first numerically large cohort were older Baby Boomers born right after World War II (between 1946 and 1955). When questioned about their initiations of a standard list of illegal agents, and the details of their experiences with alcohol, tobacco and marijuana, they reported trying marijuana for the first time at an average age of 17.6, well after their initiations of alcohol and tobacco. Most importantly,their chronic use of cannabis hadn’t begun until an average age of 22.7. Almost a third (31.16%) of that oldest Boomer cohort later tried heroin, closely agreeing with similar data provided by their contemporaries in the Seventies that generated the Gateway hypothesis.

O'Connell's more longitudinal data show that conclusion was premature; even as it was being cited in support of ‘zero tolerance” during the Eighties. That's because the younger siblings, cousins, and more recently— the children and grandchildren— of the oldest Boomers have continued trying cannabis during adolescence; but with quite different results than predicted by Gateway theorists.

For example, the next cohort (born between 1956 and 1965), first tried marijuana at an average age of 15.8 years. Still a it older than their trials of alcohol and tobacco, but their rate of heroin initiation decreased by a third to 20.8%, thus highlighting a key trend, one that has remained steady throughout four decades of illegal marijuana use: the interval between "trying and buying" (initiation and chronic use), or what O'Connell refers to as the "gap." It has declined steadily since hippie days, in parallel with each cohort's rate of heroin initiation.

According to an article in Time Magazine by John Cloud, prevention of substance abuse is possible through early identification of precursor signs, such as childhood mood disorders, like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These are all conditions for which adults often self-medicate with marijuana. In children, these conditions are treated with drugs, and the many of those used been found to have have harmful side effects. The difference with marijuana may be that not only is it safe and effective, but it may also prevent future substance abuse. The late Dr. Tod Mikuriya certainly thought so, and recommended marijuana as a first-line treatment for childhood mood disorders.

I spoke with Dr. O'Connell before sending him this this essay; his comment was: “Basically, we've been on the wrong track for 40 years, but the drug war has become a sacred cow.” I think he's right. There have been problems with the Gateway Theory ever since its introduction, Now, through an emerging picture of substance use patterns, it appears as though the Gateway had it all backwards. Rather than leading the way towards greater harm, marijuana appears to have had a role in preventing hard drug use.

By Dustin Costa

Posted by tjeffo at August 24, 2009 11:08 PM