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Tuesday, 3 December, 2002, 13:10 GMT
Cannabis 'not linked to harder drugs'
Cannabis cigarette
Teenagers often have access to cannabis
Cannabis use does not lead to experimentation with harder drugs, researchers say.

US researchers said it does not act as a "gateway" drug, and that measures to curb cannabis use does not have a knock-on effect on the use of harder drugs.

Instead, they say teenagers begin using cannabis, or marijuana, simply because it is the most available drug.

They said they were not advocating decriminalising cannabis.


Marijuana typically comes first because it is more available

Andrew Morral, Rand
But they did question whether efforts to control drug use should be so focussed on cannabis.

The research comes as the UK government prepares to announce a package of new measures to tackle drug misuse which will focus on harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

Personality

In the US study, researchers from the independent Rand Drug Policy Research Center in Santa Monica, California, looked at data from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse between 1982 and 1994.

They concluded that teenagers who took hard drugs did so whether they had first tried cannabis or not.

Researchers said the likelihood of cocaine or heroin users having previously used cannabis was high, not because of the gateway effect, but because of their personalities.

Andrew Morral of Rand said: "The people who are predisposed to use drugs and have the opportunity to use drugs are more likely than others to use both marijuana and harder drugs.

"Marijuana typically comes first because it is more available."

He said the findings would impact on drug policies, because they suggested reducing or eliminating the availability of cannabis would be "unlikely to make a dent" in the hard drug problem.

"When enforcement resources that could have been used against heroin and cocaine are instead used against marijuana, this could have the unintended effect of worsening heroin and cocaine abuse," he added.

But Mr Morral said cannabis should not be legalised or decriminalised.

"Even without the effects of the marijuana gateway, relaxing marijuana prohibitions could affect the incidence of hard drug use by diminishing the stigma of drug use generally, thereby increasing adolescents' willingness to try hard drugs.

"Moreover, marijuana itself can be a serious problem for those who become dependent on it."

Taking risks

A spokesman for the UK charity Drugscope backed the study's findings.

He told BBC News Online: "Sixty per cent of young people aged 20 to 24 have used cannabis, but only 1% of that age group have used harder drugs.

"So the idea of cannabis leading people in that direction is misleading."

He criticised the gateway theory, and backed decriminalisation of cannabis use.

He said people who used harder drugs were more likely to have "risk averse" lifestyles and to have misused other substances, including cannabis, tobacco and alcohol.

Research has linked cannabis use to depression and schizophrenia, and a recent study suggested smoking the drug harm the lungs more than smoking tobacco.

The research is published in the journal Addiction.

See also:

24 Nov 02 | Health
01 Dec 02 | Politics
06 Nov 02 | Health
05 Sep 02 | Health
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