Sorry, Sgt. Friday, Pot Smoking Might Not Lead to Hard Drugs

Filed under: In The News, Alcohol & Drugs, Teen Culture, Research Reveals: Teens

Marijuana weed

Credit: Eric Risberg, AP

Sgt. Joe Friday was ... was ... wrong?

Marijuana is not a gateway to other drugs, according to a study to be published in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

But who can forget Sgt. Friday's stern message to the children of the '60s in the classic 1968 "Dragnet" episode "The Big Prophet"?

"Marijuana is the flame, heroin is the fuse, LSD is the bomb," he tells a drug guru. "So don't you try to equate marijuana with liquor, Mister, not with me. You may sell that jazz to another pothead, but not someone who spends most of their time holding some sick kid's head while he vomits and wretches sitting on a curbstone at four o'clock in the morning."

Yuck.

"So don't you con me with your mind-expansion slop."

You tell 'em, Joe. Actually, that's pretty much what kids have been told for decades. But it may be only partially true.

True, teens in the study by the University of New Hampshire who smoked marijuana were more likely to go on to use harder drugs, WebMD reports, but the gateway effect was lessened by the age of 21.

Failure to graduate from high school or find a job were all bigger warning signs of hard drug use in young adulthood than pot smoking during adolescence, study researcher Karen Van Gundy, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire, tells the website.

"If we overly criminalize behaviors like marijuana use among teens, this could interfere with opportunities for education and employment later on, which, in turn, could be creating more drug use," she adds.

Van Gundy tells WebMD she wasn't out to debunk Joe Friday and the "gateway" myths.

But she and fellow researcher Cesar J. Rebellon couldn't escape their conclusions after examining survey data from 1,300 mostly male Hispanic, white and African American young adults who attended South Florida public schools in the 1990s. Participants were tracked from middle school to early adulthood.

"Most of the previous research has examined early drug use among people with serious drug problems," Van Gundy tells WebMD. "These people do tend to progress from alcohol and marijuana use to other drugs."

The story changes, she adds, as teens became young adults.

"We were somewhat surprised to find the gateway effect wasn't that strong during the transition to adulthood," Van Gundy tells the website. "It really didn't matter if someone used marijuana or not as a teen."

Hard drug use was more closely linked to stress.

"Assuming and occupying conventional roles, such as 'worker,' may close the marijuana gateway by modifying and redirecting substance use trajectories," the researchers write.

In other words, kid, get a job.

Columbia University sociologist Denise B. Kandel disagrees. Her research early in the decade confirmed marijuana as a gateway drug, and, she tells WebMD, the new study fails to take into account the role pot can play in adult stress.

"Using marijuana as a teen can certainly have an impact on whether or not someone fails to graduate from high school or gets a job," she tells the website. "And this increases the risk of persistent illicit drug use."

Sgt. Friday would like that answer.

Related: Teen Girls Drink to Forget Their Troubles, Study Says

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.