The Complicated Birth of the Gateway Theory

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Seth Blumenthal, contributing editor and lecturer at Boston University. 

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Richard Daley and Richard Nixon in 1971

In 1972 , spelling  out marijuana’s gateway potential to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, President Richard Nixon explained, “Once you cross that line, from the straight society to the drug society – marijuana, then speed, then it’s LSD, then it’s heroin, etc. then you’re done.” This stepping-stone rationale existed long before Nixon’s presidency, of course. Still, in the 1930s, years before the War on Drugs began under “Tricky Dick,” Harry Anslinger, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics director from 1931 to 1962, initially shied away from this causal relationship, preferring to target marijuana on its own.

But by 1951, Anslinger had embraced the gateway theory as well, finally acceding to the growing chorus that connected marijuana to eventual heroin addiction. Rather than credit (or blame) Anslinger and Nixon for this approach, the history of the gateway theory proves that the basic assumptions and mythologies surrounding marijuana were much larger than the drug itself, regardless of which drug it eventually connected to. Instead, the gateway theory represented the widespread concerns and sense of racism that shaped Americans’ association with drug use and addiction in the post-WWII era.

In fact, when it became apparent that marijuana users far outnumbered heroin users and arrests for pot exceeded heroin arrests, the gateway theory didn’t die from a death of lack of factuality. Instead, it emerged even more as a concern of political and popular discourse. When one of Texas’s most distinguished law officers, Sheriff Owen Kilday, joined a senate hearing on narcotics laws in 1955, Senator John Butler asked for a comparison between marijuana and opioids. Kilday downplayed the marijuana menace, stating, “Marihuana is not what police call a true habit-forming drug. The only habit-forming drugs in our book I’ll say, is the derivatives of opium.”

Politicians weren’t having it. In the same hearing, Senator Marion Price Daniel also pushed for a gateway connection between heroin and marijuana, as he questioned Dallas’s Chief of Police. “In addition to marihuana being a very dangerous drug itself, it does cause them, then, to go into heroin? Eventually, in many cases, doesn’t it?” Daniel asked. Americans’ increased exposure and understanding of marijuana as a “soft drug” and its actual physiological effects made it increasingly difficult to convince lawmakers and citizens to share the same concerns about cannabis as they should for opioids. Thus, Daniel’s consistent questioning to establish the gateway theory marked a shift in harm perception concerning marijuana.  

In addition, for Anslinger the gateway theory provided a renewed defense for his historically laser-like focus on marijuana. When politicians asked him about other dangerous drugs, including pharmaceuticals such as barbiturates, and criticized law enforcement’s inability to handle those drugs in comparison to high arrest rates for marijuana users and dealers, Anslinger replied, “Over 60 percent of those young addicts started on marijuana smoking. They started there and graduated to heroin; they took the needle when the thrill of marijuana was gone. You do not find those young people taking barbiturates and graduating to heroin.”

The gateway theory also established young white youth as victims, stirring racial concerns about “containing” the spread of heroin addiction outside its traditional urban confines.  The dubious claim that marijuana led young people to the popularly phrased “enslavement of addiction” had been established in many major American cities during the post-war years, as trafficking routes re-solidified and heroin use rose. One article traced the progression from cannabis to opioids for a Baltimore youth, detailing the 15 year-old’s path to the “needle” shortly after, as his mother revealed, “he started smoking ‘reefers.’”

Since few understood why exactly heroin use was rising so steadily in the wake of World War II, the gateway theory became a popular excuse to explain the rise of addiction. Anslinger argued for the gateway theory’s limited applications, as he claimed this stepping stone process only threatened young people from the troubled backgrounds and broken homes that he identified with America’s urban centers. Still, the predatory nature of peddlers, and the relative innocence of users, became a clearly racialized distinction in other ways. 

During a 1951 hearing on the Boggs Act–the first significant federal narcotics law since the 1930s that redoubled the interdiction and supply side focus on drug prevention–one legislator, Congressman Sidney Yates, mourned the way marijuana opened the door to heroin addiction for white youth. Yates detailed the plight of a white 17-year-old high school junior from outside Chicago who had bought his first marijuana cigarette from a fellow white student. Within a short time, however, that teenager asked a “colored” musician during a jam session for marijuana. The musician didn’t have any, so the teenager instead purchased heroin, starting his opioid addiction. As Yates concluded, “The most terrifying thing about the drug disease among the youth to parents and citizens who are worried about its rapid spread is that it happens to normal and average children–not only to subnormal children but to normal and average children as well.”

These concerns about urban creep motivated the gateway theory’s focus on supply side efforts and containment, as stories about urban “peddlers” using weed to fish for suburban youth whom they could cultivate into addicts (and reliable customers) commonly appeared in the press. One typical report explained that local police arrested a New York City laborer in the posh New Jersey suburb of Fair Lawn for selling “reefers” to local teenagers. Staying true to the town’s motto, “A great place to visit and a better place to live,” the dealer faced a long sentence while the two teenaged residents were released without punishment. And while the New Jersey decision differentiated between the pusher and the user, other sentences, especially those for non-whites, didn’t. One year later, a black soldier in El Paso received two years in prison for merely possessing five joints. 

Recent scholarship on drug policy and carceral studies has focused on marijuana politics to examine these complexities. Khalil Muhammad proved in his book The Condemnation of Blackness that marijuana laws intensified painful racial disparities in the justice system, claiming the modern war on drugs created “the reciprocal criminalization of blackness and decriminalization of whiteness.” More specifically, historian Matt Lassiter explained, “The marijuana-as-gateway mystique…helped institutionalize two interlinked but spatially distinct approaches: public health campaigns in white middle-class neighborhoods and militarized interdiction in urban minority areas.” This racial lens highlights the pervasive components of the gateway theory’s history that influenced long-lasting reforms during Nixon’s presidency.

The gateway theory intensified the increasingly selective and racist applications of drug laws and established a bifurcated supply side enforcement focus built on the logic of containment. And while we can certainly blame the boogiemen of the War on Drugs such as Anslinger and Nixon, understanding the widespread gateway narratives shared by politicians and the press show that American institutions and citizens played a more important role in setting the foundational myths supporting the war on drugs.

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