Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican that represents Alabama, is decidedly not chill when it comes to legalized weed. It’s going to be a huge problem for legalization advocates if he becomes Attorney General, as he is poised to do, not least because his emphatic statements about drug use are entirely unsupported by science. Has nobody told this guy that the ‘gateway drug’ argument has been repeatedly refuted by research?
Then again, this is the guy who’s been called a “nightmare for drug policy reform” by the Drug Policy Alliance and has stated that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” This conservative is no Rand Paul, and he appears to have no respect for the scientific data available on marijuana.
Sessions, who, according to a past employee, allegedly said that he thought the KKK was all right “until he learned that they smoked marijuana”, has an opinion on bud that is stuck in the Reagan era of the war on drugs. His arguments against legalization have, for decades now, repeatedly gone back to the idea that marijuana is a gateway drug. “We’re going to see more marijuana use,” he said at an April U.S. Senate hearing on marijuana legalization. “We’re going to see more illegal drug use also,” he continued.
Science, however, does not back up his claims. To say that marijuana is a gateway drug to other substances is to fall into the classic “correlation equals causation” trap. National surveys do demonstrate that there is a large proportion of individuals who use cannabis and then go on to use other illegal drugs. But the accepted scientific opinion isn’t that marijuana is a specialized force drawing people into further temptation — it’s that people who are more vulnerable to taking drugs typically start with what’s readily available. And marijuana is pretty readily available.
“But because underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede marijuana use, marijuana is not the most common, and is rarely the first, ‘gateway’ to illicit drug use,” the National Academy of Sciences announced in 1999. “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are casually linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”
There you have it: The real gateway drug, according to Sessions’ version of logic, is alcohol. A 2016 study published in the Journal of School Health reported that “the vast majority” of 2,835 United States twelfth-graders drank alcohol before trying out tobacco or marijuana. A different 2014 study on gateway substances found that nicotine had a “priming effect” on cocaine use. Meanwhile, there’s no conclusive evidence that it’s marijuana specifically that leads people to try other drugs.
This evidence, however, has not convinced Sessions or other Trump surrogates like Ben Carson and Governor Chris Christie. On Thursday, Christie said, blatantly incorrectly, that “every study shows marijuana is a gateway drug.”
Additionally, Trump’s previous statements that marijuana legalization should be a state-by-state issue does not mean that legal use of the drug is safe under a Trump administration. As Attorney General, Sessions could require prosecutors to go after marijuana companies in states that have already legalized the substance and throw out the 2013 Justice Department decision to leave legal marijuana sellers alone. Being Attorney General also gives Sessions the power to arrest owners and operators, then seize their assets.
Sessions’ beliefs on marijuana are more in line with the late Nancy Reagan than with modern-day science. That’s bad news for anyone hoping that the future Attorney General might approach subjects with cool logic rather than out-of-touch bias.Photos via Getty Images / Alex Wong