Reefer Madness | Part 2
Publication:. Drug Survival News
Editor:. Jim Parker
Date:. November-December 1981 
Pages:. 7

The feeling of déja vu was inescapable. It seemed like every high school health class I ever slept through was suddenly yawning back at me. "Study Links Pot Use to Hard Drugs," "Study Ties Marijuana to Heroin, Crime," "Study Proves Pot Smoking Leads to Hard Drug Use." Headline writers in the popular press nationwide appeared to be vying with each other to develop the most sensational context possible for news reports of an unpublished study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which NIDA Director William Pollin chose to make public at a Senate Subcommittee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse hearing October 21.

On the surface, the study seemed to contain nothing all that new in documenting a greater incidence of previous marijuana use among hard drug users than among the general population. Anyone with more than a passing familiarity with drug abuse treatment and prevention generally accepts as an article of faith the notion that people who turn into addicts usually seek out various states of intoxication along the way, and that one of the most easily accessible states of intoxication (and thus one of the most frequently used intoxicants) is marijuana. It's an exceedingly rare addict (and the figures Dr. Pollin made public bear this out) who starts with heroin, stays with heroin, and never deviates from heroin. That just isn't the way drug abuse usually works.

Nothing new so far.

But Dr. Pollin didn't stop there. He made the additional leap of faith to propose that the study provides solid evidence to support the "stepping stone" hypothesis linking marijuana with harder drugs. According to Pollin, the theory "was rejected prematurely and now needs serious reevaluation."

In case you'd forgotten, the "stepping stone" hypothesis was the drug world's domino theory, formulated by pot prohibitionists of the 1930s and '40s and '50s and popularized by purveyors of shabby entertainments like the 1936 anti-marijuana film classic, "Reefer Madness." The "stepping stone" hypothesis in its original form postulated an inexorable progression of addictive behaviors culminating in total addiction following even occasional use of the "killer weed."

Eventually the hypothesis was modified to reflect the plain fact that the vast majority of recreational smokers do not subsequently become involved with harder drugs. Under the terms of the revised "stepping stone" hypothesis, marijuana was viewed as triggering addictive behaviors in some users, but not others, victims apparently determined through an unspecified bio-chemical psycho-physiological pseudo-scientific quasi-philosophical process probably patterned after the Calvinist precept of the predestination of the soul.

But all humor aside, the information, as presented by Dr. Pollin, raises as many questions about the study's design and methodology and the political motivations of the NIDA director as it answers about correlates of chronic marijuana use.

The study itself was conducted by Dr. Richard Clayton of the University of Kentucky and involved 2,510 men ranging in age from 20 to 30. Participants were queried about a number of drug-related behaviors, including use patterns and frequency, as well as non-drug- related behaviors such as criminal activity.

To no one's great surprise, the study showed that less than one percent of those who had never used marijuana went on to use heroin or cocaine. And similarly unsurprising was the result showing that 73 percent of all persons who had smoked pot at least 1,000 times had experimented with cocaine, and 33 percent with heroin. Dr. Pollin also said the study revealed "a significant relationship between non-drug-related criminal activities and marijuana use." Specifically, he pointed to the results that showed that while only six percent of nonusers had committed a breaking and entering offense, 27 percent of those who have smoked marijuana more than 1,000 times have committed the same offense.

What is the inference that we are supposed to make? That marijuana leads to harder drugs? Or that marijuana leads to breaking and entering? If we're careful, neither, because neither inference holds water on the basis of the available evidence.

To cite just one example: If 33 percent of the persons surveyed who smoked pot at least 1,000 times expanded their chemical repertory to include heroin, it would seem to make excellent sense that a fair number of these would go on to become addicts and thence to break and enter in the commission of burglaries in support of their heroin habits. This would not reflect any causality between marijuana use and breaking and entering, but between heroin addiction and burglary.

Rather than reflecting anything approaching causality, as Dr. Pollin would apparently have us believe, these figures merely represent statistical correlation. And any first semester statistics student can usually tell you that correlation does not imply causality And in point of fact, the figures that Dr. Pollin cited could even be questioned as representing a true correlation, in the sense that they could be said to measure the same variable -- social deviance -- from different angles, ascribing a causal role to one aspect of that deviance, namely chronic marijuana use.

The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws immediately cried foul at Pollin's official resurrection of the "stepping stone" hypothesis, charging that the NIDA director was "playing politics" with marijuana "by distorting statistics that are unpublished and that are inconsistent with past studies."

According to NORML, Pollin's motives were purely political. NORML Political Director George Farnham alleged that NIDA may be eliminated altogether by the Reagan administration in 1982 and reminded listeners that there is "no one more sensationalistic than a bureaucrat in need of an issue to justify his bureaucratic existence."

And in a telephone interview with NORML, Dr. Richard Clayton, who authored the new "stepping stone" study, indicated that it is marijuana's illegality, not some psychoactive property of the drug itself, that leads to the use of harder drugs. Another piece of common-sense wisdom casually overlooked was the notion that one of the reasons why people use harder drugs is that dealers push harder drugs -- because their profitability and addictiveness means more money over extended periods of time for sellers.

So where does all this leave the old "stepping stone" hypothesis? From the data that Dr. Pollin made public, back on the scrap heap of discarded scientific theory, with all the other wrecks and rejects of history, including the flat earth theory, the spontaneous generation hypothesis, and Fudd's First Law of Peripheral Centrifugality.

And Dr. Pollin's "premature rejection" to the contrary, that's probably where it belongs.

Just get here? Click to check out more articles, interviews, and commentary from Do It Now Foundation's Archives.

This is one in a series of publications on drugs, behavior, and health by Do It Now Foundation.
Please call or write for a complete list of available titles, or check us out online at