Gateway Crimes


Many who argue against the legalization of marijuana suggest that while its consumption may not be very harmful, marijuana indirectly causes significant social harm by acting as a “gateway drug,” a drug whose consumption facilitates the use of other, more harmful, drugs. This article presents a theory of “gateway crimes”, which, perhaps counterintuitively, implies that there are social gains to decriminalizing offenses that cause minor harms, including marijuana-related offenses. A typical gateway crime is an act which is punished lightly, but, because it is designated as a crime, being convicted for committing it leads one to be severely stigmatized. People who are stigmatized have less to lose by committing more serious crimes, and, therefore, the criminalization of these acts increases recidivism. Thus, punishing “gateway crimes” may generate greater costs than benefits, and this possibility must be kept in mind when discussing potential criminal justice reforms. This “gateway effect” does not require that, but, is strongest when, people underestimate, or ignore, either the likelihood or magnitude of the consequences associated with being convicted for a minor crime. Therefore, - if potential offenders in fact underestimate expected conviction costs - this theory not only implies previously unidentified benefits associated with decriminalizing acts that cause questionable or minor harms, but also benefits associated with making the costs associated with convictions more transparent.