Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Can Social Psychological Delinquency Theory Explain the Link between Marijuana and Other Illicit Drug Use? a Longitudinal Analysis of the Gateway Hypothesis

Academic journal article Journal of Drug Issues

Can Social Psychological Delinquency Theory Explain the Link between Marijuana and Other Illicit Drug Use? a Longitudinal Analysis of the Gateway Hypothesis

Article excerpt

Extensive research suggests that marijuana use tends to precede the use of other illicit substances among adolescents. At the same time, there remain two viable interpretations of such research. First, marijuana use may cause an increase in one's probability of using other drugs. Second, the correlation between marijuana use and other drug use may be spurious, reflecting the influence of one or more "third variables" that simultaneously cause both behaviors. The present paper provides an empirical assessment of each view using panel data from three waves of the National Youth Survey. Even after adjusting for the influence of variables derived from strain theory, social bonding theory, and differential association theory, a series of longitudinal logistic regression analyses fail to disconfirm the hypothesis that marijuana use exerts a causal influence on one's probability of using other illicit substances. A three-wave panel model adjusting for the influence of unmeasured variables yields similar results.

INTRODUCTION

A wealth of public health research suggests that adolescents rarely use drugs like cocaine or heroin without first using marijuana (see Kandel, 2002). Many researchers have interpreted such findings as evidence supporting the so-called "gateway hypothesis" of drug use. At the same time, the general gateway hypothesis encompasses two very different assertions concerning the nature of drug use. One assertion is that drug users begin their use with drugs like alcohol or marijuana. A second assertion, often confounded inappropriately with the first, is that using drugs like marijuana independently causes an increase in one's susceptibility to use harder drugs like cocaine.

With respect to the first of the above two assertions, the evidence clearly suggests that involvement with drugs like alcohol and marijuana tends to precede involvement with presumably harder drugs like cocaine or heroin. Kandel (1975) conducted seminal research in this area by using two random samples of high school students from the state of New York to demonstrate that adolescent substance use tends to progress in four stages: abstinence, use of alcohol and cigarettes, use of marijuana, and use of other illicit substances. This general progression is apparent among both males and females, although limited research suggests that cigarettes may play a more critical role in the progression among females (Yamaguchi & Kandel, 1984). Likewise, the same progression is apparent among those with and without arrest records (Kane & Yacubian, 1999). Finally, although the majority of relevant research has taken place among U.S. adolescents, preliminary research suggests that a similar progression is apparent cross-nationally (Blaze-Temple & Lo, 1992).

Despite consistent support for the notion that the use of marijuana tends to precede the use of other illicit substances, the evidence has yet to provide compelling support for the notion that the use of marijuana exerts a causal influence on one's probability of using other illicit substances. Such support would require the demonstration of three empirical criteria. First, it would require evidence that those who use other illicit drugs are disproportionately prone to use marijuana also (i.e., a correlation between marijuana use and other illicit substance use). Second, it would require evidence that marijuana use typically precedes the use of other illicit drugs. Third, it would require evidence that the correlation between early marijuana use and later other substance use remains even after controlling statistically for potentially confounding variables that might plausibly be said to cause both behaviors. As yet, research has demonstrated ample support for the first two of the above three criteria but has paid little attention to the third (see Kandel & Jessor, 2002; Gulab & Johnson, 1998).

In the absence of support for the third of the above empirical criteria, many policy assertions concerning the control of substance use remain unfounded. …

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