Expert: Marijuana is 'gateway drug to the White House'

The dangers of marijuana use are overstated, and the last three presidential elections prove it, an expert told a congressional panel on Friday.

“When we talk about marijuana as a gateway drug, we have to remember that the last three occupants of the White House have smoked marijuana,” said Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University.

“We can very well say marijuana is a gateway drug to the White House,” he added.

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President Obama has admitted to using marijuana as a teenager, and has expressed support for efforts in states such as Colorado and Washington to legalize the drug for recreational use. The Treasury Department, meanwhile, has outlined how banks can provide services for businesses selling marijuana without breaking federal law, which bans the drug.

That has drawn pushback from some members of Congress who say the administration is encouraging illegal conduct.

Marijuana is officially a Schedule 1 substance in the eyes of the federal government, but medical pot is legal in 20 states and the District of Columbia. In Colorado and Washington, it is legal to buy, sell and use marijuana for recreational purposes.

The House Oversight subcommittee on government operations met Friday to hear testimony on the addictive properties of marijuana and its potential as a gateway drug

Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, presented recent research that she said shows marijuana is an addictive gateway drug that could stunt brain development in teenagers.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee, pointed out that Obama has said marijuana is not much different than alcohol and cigarettes, and asked Volkow whether she agreed.

“We all use our own experiences,” said Volkow, “The key is alcohol is legal and marijuana is illegal.”

She said nicotine itself is not very addictive but that when people have wide access to tobacco, they are more likely to become addicted.

Hart, on the other hand, said that while marijuana is addictive, it is far less dangerous than other drugs and has medical benefits. He said that while 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted to the drug, 15 percent who drink alcohol and 33 percent of cigarette smokers become addicted.

“The point is, yes marijuana is potentially addictive, but its addictive potential is lower than our current legal drugs alcohol and tobacco,” Hart said.

He said the bigger issue is how race plays into the conversation over marijuana.

He said whites, blacks and Hispanics use marijuana at similar rates, but at the state level, black people are two to seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related crimes than whites.