The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Through a Dangerous Gateway: Parental Divorce and Marijuana


Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King


In legalizing marijuana, lawmakers in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and Alaska have ignored the widespread perception among public-health authorities that marijuana is not only itself a dangerous substance but also a gateway drug, opening the way to use of even more harmful substances, such as cocaine and heroin. The judgment of the legislators in these four states looks even more suspect in the light of a new Swiss study confirming the status of marijuana as a gateway drug. But this new Swiss study also raises doubts about the judgment of the lawmakers behind the no-fault divorce revolution in all fifty states, a revolution exposing unprecedented numbers of American children to the trauma of parental divorce. Parental divorce, this new Swiss study reveals, is a prime statistical predictor of which young people end up using marijuana—so making themselves vulnerable to all of the associated perils.

Completed by researchers at Zurich and Lausanne Universities in Switzerland and the University of Oviedo in Spain, this new study examines marijuana use as a serious health hazard. The researchers note that “approximately 230 million individuals of the world’s adult population between the ages of 15 and 64 use an illegal drug at least once a year and about 27 million male and female adults are problem drug users; the most frequent substances consumed include cannabis [marijuana], amphetamines, or ecstasy, followed by cocaine and opiates.” Rejecting the libertarian notion that drug use is entirely a matter of individual choice, the researchers stress that “drug consumption undermines economic and social development and contributes to crime, insecurity, and the increase of severe health problems, such as the spread of HIV.”

The researchers acknowledge that drug use is “particularly prevalent in male young adults.” But then their study focuses on young men, drawing its data from almost six thousand young men (all about twenty years old) who visited army recruitment centers in twenty-one of Switzerland’s twenty-six cantons in 2010 or 2011.

In these data, the researchers see clear confirmation of “the gateway hypothesis.” That is, the researchers find that “moderate or high cannabis [marijuana] dependence” predicts a more than fourfold likelihood of using other illegal drugs (Odds Ratio in the overall statistical model of 4.13; p < 0.01). Even “low cannabis dependence” predicts a threefold likelihood of such drug use (Odds Ratio of 3.01; p < 0.01).  The researchers plausibly trace a substance use pathway in “drug use with the use of legal substances (i.e. alcohol and tobacco) followed by cannabis [marijuana] and ‘hard’ drugs, such as cocaine or heroin.”

But not all young men are equally likely to travel this path. The researchers identify parental divorce before the age of eighteen as a statistically significant predictor of marijuana use. Indeed, young men who had experienced parental divorce were twice as likely as peers from intact families to use marijuana (Odds Ratio of 2.01; p = 0.04). The researchers regard this finding as “in line with prior results showing that children who are exposed to family problems, including family disruption and conflict, are more likely to use drugs such as cannabis in both adolescence and young adulthood.”

But while parental divorce drives up the likelihood of marijuana use, religion pushes it down. “Our study,” the researchers acknowledge, “showed that religiosity, defined as believing in God and practising religion, protected from the onset of cannabis use.” Compared to peers identifying themselves as atheists, the young men in the study who professed belief in God and regularly participated in worship services were half as likely to use marijuana (Odds Ratio in the full statistical model of 0.54; p = 0.04). The researchers interpret this finding in the context of “previous research . . . showing that . . . social religiosity and perceived religious support were correlated with lower cannabis use.” 

This new study provides ample evidence of the malign consequences of marijuana use and the parental divorce that incubates it. And those consequences will only multiply unless America finds a way to empty its divorce courts and fill its churches. 

(Severin Haug et al., “Predictors of Onset of Cannabis and Other Drug Use in Male Young Adults: Results from a Longitudinal Study,” BMC Public Health 14.1 [2014]: 1,201. Web.) 

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