Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: What we can learn from our prisons.

Let me begin by saying that I am, by no means, an expert on this topic. But it occurs to me that there is something to be learned by our own prison system that applies to this controversial topic. We’ve all heard that marijuana is a “gateway drug” – meaning it has the tendency to lead to the use/abuse of other illegal drugs. Researchers have debated this for quite awhile and, for the most part, all agree that marijuana is no more a gateway drug than alcohol or tobacco. As one psychologist explained, you could easily say that shoplifting is a “gateway crime” that can lead to murder, but research shows that one has the same propensity to commit murder whether or not they have ever shoplifted in their life. Simply put, you have the same chances of trying or getting addicted to heroin whether or not you ever try marijuana.

In our world right now, the topic of legalizing marijuana is a hot-topic revolving around health issues, personal freedoms, and finances. No doubt the opponents on each side of the issue have used every pundit, news event, research study, and Bible verse to debate the topic. I’m not going to debate it or bring forth any research because, quite frankly, I don’t have much of an opinion on it one way or the other. But I can draw a similarity to the topic with something I’ve seen in the prisons – and working in prisons is something in which I do have a lot of experience. And my experience was in more diverse areas than other corrections employees as well. I worked a total of 14 years in corrections across three states. I began as a NEO officer and worked my way through to mid-level management ranks. I once was awarded for being one of the only employees trained and capable of working ANY area in the prison. I worked administratively with budgets and policy-making, disciplinary hearings, scheduling, firearms training, transportation, and even internal affairs.

Now that my credentials are out of the way, let me explain a couple of “controversial” issues that the area of corrections has dealt with over the years and how we can use these experiences to understand what to expect on the  topic of marijuana as a gateway drug. Two very hot-topics in prisons were the decisions in Indiana in 1990 to allow females to work inside of medium-max and maximum security men’s prisons, working directly with the inmates and then in the late 90’s across the country when tobacco was banned from prisons.

I remember when I first started working in prisons they were just ending the debate on allowing females to work inside “the walls” of dangerous prisons. Mind you, this was not an issue of keeping women in their place, but of genuine concern that it would disrupt and create a danger in a place where violent criminals are housed. And, to be clear, I was working in a medium-maximum prison with dormitory-style housing – not cells – and we also housed the mentally ill criminals for the majority of the state. I was very much against the idea myself of allowing women to work inside my complex, even as “the new guy” still learning the ropes. And, to top it all off, a few months before this change was to be made at our prison, the female pastor was held hostage and raped by a mentally ill inmate!! There was no question what I felt about allowing females into this dangerous area of the prison. And we were granted a BFOQ, meaning we could legally deny employment to women in this scenario. But the state persisted and in 1992, women were allowed into any/all areas of prisons across the state. The BFOQ was later repealed across the state.

But the interesting thing, that came as a shock to most, was that the idea worked!! We had rapists, child molesters, women-abusers; you name it. And rather than stirring up the pot and creating problems, these convicts were put at ease and, in most cases, became more manageable with women working in their housing units and recreation areas. As it turns out, the inmates looked at these female officers as mother-figures of a sort. While men tend to challenge and compete against other men telling them what to do and where to go, their response to a woman doing the same thing was typically, “yes, ma’am”. I honestly don’t know if that was part of the planned outcome when the powers-that-be came up with the idea, but it certainly was how it played out.

The next controversy was one that started in Ohio in the mid-1990s.Some insurance company, that covered the state’s inmates and employees, decided that they would charge about 15% more for coverage unless the state certified themselves “tobacco free”. As you can imagine, this meant a savings of millions of dollars if the state made all state-run facilities smoke-free. This is also the motivation for so many states and local municipalities you see that have instituted smoke-free buildings. Nearly all prison staff, myself included, agreed that banning tobacco was the worst possible idea. Inmates would riot having to suddenly go cold-turkey. Indeed, there was a mass purchase of tobacco leading up to the ban, as well as threats from Death Row and “Lifers” who had nothing but the tobacco left in their lives. We expected nothing short of complete chaos!

However, the prisons in Ohio noticed an interesting side effect of the tobacco ban. Tobacco now became the most popular item to be smuggled into the prisons! Where an inmate might pay fifty-cents to a dollar for a cigarette before the ban, now a pack of cigarettes would go for $100! But these were criminals – it was only natural that if you outlaw something, they would just want it more. As a result, things like marijuana, heroin, meth, etc. were smuggled in the prison far less often. So Indiana and a few other states jumped on the tobacco-free bandwagon in their prisons in hopes of reducing the intake of illegal drugs. Today, it is an extreme rarity to find any illegal drugs inside prison walls, but tobacco is constantly being trafficked inside. Prison administrators could not be happier!! Sure, now they had a tobacco problem in the prisons far worse than they ever had with illegal drugs, but tobacco was legal OUTSIDE the prison. If a staff member is caught bringing tobacco into the facility, you can terminate them and not have to prosecute – which cost the state even more money for legal fees, litigation, etc – especially when ultimately they would have to support that person as an inmate! It was a win-win in every sense.

the exact reverse of this is what we can expect to happen if we legalize marijuana in our country. Not only will it provide a financial boost through taxes and perhaps state-run distribution facilities, but it will lose the thrill of being “illegal”. Just like with alcohol, our prisons wouldn’t be full of people using the drug, instead they would be filled with people who are “bootlegging” marijuana. A huge reduction in prison costs as the number of offenders could be expected to be 1000% less. Also, just like with alcohol, employers can have policies regarding reporting to work under the influence. Let’s face it, the main reason marijuana is so rampant, is for the “thrill” of breaking the law, hiding it from people, and experimentation. If we remove all those factors, it is only logical that marijuana use will sink to an all-time low.

Now, again, I’m no expert on the topic of marijuana. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned from our prisons, it’s that unconventional ideas can have very positive results when it comes to reducing illegal activity and diminishing the severity of the activity by making it legal. Marijuana CAN be a gateway drug, but it would be a gateway to reducing crime, reducing the dangerous side of marijuana use, and a gateway to making more profit in our country. I’m sure the snack food industry would prosper!! LOL.

What are your thoughts?? Am I onto something here? Or am I just a wannabe stoner looking for an easy fix? Comment below.


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