Since the states of Colorado and Washington have legalized private use of marijuana (see "Colorado and Washington Blazed a Marijuana Legalization Trail: Should Others Follow?"), moral conservatives all over have objected to its coming impact on youth. One of the more interesting arguments is a very old one, that marijuana is a gateway drug. (So are chocolate and taco chips and spectator football. Clearly marijuana and alcohol are more dangerous than chocolate and taco chips and spectator football. Yet, for some people, chocolate and/or taco chips and/or spectator football are dangerous weaknesses.) Substance abuse is, of course, an age-old problem, and addiction is an age-old problem. Dependency comes in two major flavors, physical and psychological. Both forms of dependency weaken the moral judgment required to avoid deepening the problem by experimenting with other substances. In that sense, of course, marijuana is, at least theoretically, a gateway drug. The following points appear to be well established:
- Marijuana delivery mechanisms, including smoking "weed" are much more potent than they were in the 60s and 70s (when I was young). All of the negative side effects of marijuana use are, of course, significantly increased as a result.
- Teenagers, and younger, have immature cerebral organs, which are much more susceptible to damage through marijuana use than adult brains. In addition, their judgment is already immature (in the vast majority of cases), so exposure to marijuana use is inherently more dangerous for them.
For reasons such as the above, alcohol sale to minors is generally forbidden. Teenage (and even younger) drinking is a serious problem in much of the so-called civilized world. So also is marijuana use and the use of other illegal drugs. The list of such abused substances is a very long one. While it is undoubtedly true that both marijuana and alcohol are gateway drugs to a deeper problem (especially among teens), it seems to me we should recognize that the main issue here is psychological and moral. If someone is physically addicted to alcohol, they may take other drugs (especially nicotine) but their main focus on satisfying their cravings is the very drug to which they are addicted. When the main issues is psychological, it is focused on the generic pleasure centers of the brain, and in this case, just about any pleasuring-inducing behavior can "substitute" for the high, even unchecked rage.
Psychological addiction is no less a problem than physical. Indeed, it is, if anything, more about character and about natural suggestibility. Nor is it devoid of a physical aspect, in the sense of alteration of the neural pathways of the brain. People with a physical addiction can arrive at self-understanding with less effort than people with a psychological addiction (though, if the truth be told, physical addiction is often accompanied by an independent psychological addiction). All of this points to psychological addiction patterns being more dangerous in the long run. Furthermore, psychological addiction levels rise in a culture that is increasingly lax in self-discipline and moral ambition. Our culture of dependency and personal entitlement is bound to be exceptionally vulnerable to increasing substance abuse problems.
I've posted links in the past that point to the addiction issues of pornography. They are major. Yet our culture leaves all of us, especially young people, very vulnerable to pornography addiction. That culture tells us that sex apart from marriage is natural and morally acceptable. It's a culture that tells us that sexual pleasure is a natural right, an entitlement. The national healthcare system even subsidizes it! And complications like unwanted pregnancy are dealt with as a medical problem to be solved with abortion and/or sterilization (whether temporary or permanent).
What people who study culture do not seem to have fully recognized is that this sense of sexual entitlement is, itself, a gateway drug which leads to other forms of dependency. The most dangerous consequence is to the matrix of expectations about life, what satisfies and what one is entitled to. The slide is into a lifestyle focused on increasingly immediate gratification, a lifestyle in which long term self-improvement objectives are jettisoned. This does not mean that all ambition is lost. On the contrary, ambition becomes increasingly focused on power and pleasure. People trapped in this moral death spiral become increasingly narcissistic. (It's probably impossible to know for sure what proportion of people enter politics for this reason, but I would hazard a guess that it is dangerously high.) They become increasingly vulnerable to existential moral evils such as "the ends justify the means" and "ceding responsibility to central authority leads to Utopia and risk-free living."
When we look at issues of marijuana legalization, etc., we should bear in mind the wider social problems in which these issues are worked out.