Is Marijuana A Gateway Drug? – There has been considerable debate about whether marijuana can be harmful and possibly act as a gateway to more potent drugs such as heroin. Gateway drugs are substances thought to be habit-forming and may lead to experimentation with other drugs or alcohol.
The gateway drug theory contends that marijuana is likely to be used before a person progresses to harder drugs, such as opioids, meth, or cocaine. There are two suggested reasons for this: experimentation and socialization.
Using a drug like marijuana can increase the desire to use other drugs, leading to more experimentation. Also, when a person who uses marijuana associates with others who do as well, the likelihood that they will be exposed to other substances increases. In other words, more potent drugs may be accessible.
This theory is based on the idea that those who use drugs and alcohol gradually advance through escalating stages. These stages begin when a person uses legal, socially-accepted substances, such as nicotine and alcohol. Later, they start to experiment with “mild” illicit drugs such as marijuana. Eventually, they move on to the use of powerful drugs such as heroin.
Research has challenged this idea, however, and revealed that many people do not follow this series of steps.
How Would a Gateway Hypothesis Work?
Supporters of this hypothesis for drug abuse point to two underlying conditions that could result in certain substances making a person more vulnerable to using other drugs or alcohol.
1) A gateway drug would presumably alter neuropathways in the brain.
Research has shown that animals that begin to use certain types of substances early in life are at an increased likelihood to develop addictive behaviors related to other substances. When these animals are examined postmortem, findings indicate that some regions of their brain are altered. Also, the results of these experiments are similar to observational data seen in humans.
2) There is an interplay of genetics and environment.
Twin studies in humans found a significant genetic component related to drug abuse. This component was exhibited in those who abuse multiple substances. Therefore, certain intrinsic factors may contribute to the altering of neuropathways, and also account for the gateway hypothesis.
Scientists who study drug abuse have identified several environmental and individual factors that may be associated with polysubstance abuse. Thus, the gateway theory presumes that the interaction of intrinsic factors with personal experience may lead to situations that support its hypothesis.
Evidence Supporting the Gateway Drug Theory
Some research suggests that the use of marijuana is likely to precede abuse and addiction to other substances. For example, one study found that adults who reported using marijuana during the first phase of the survey were more likely than their marijuana-free counterparts to develop an alcohol use disorder within three years.
Marijuana use has also been associated with other substance use disorders, such as nicotine addiction. But there is more to be considered—many other factors may contribute to substance use, including the following:
- Neighborhood and community environment
- Level of parental supervision in youth
- Unique individual characteristics, including biology and experiences
Also, a person who uses marijuana may be influenced by the enjoyability of their first experience, and if they believe that marijuana use is harmful or not.
Evidence Against the Gateway Drug Theory
An impactful 2016 study examined the link between gateway drugs in the early teenage years and drug use later in life. They found that, yes, this behavior was indeed strongly associated with marijuana and illegal drug use such as cocaine later in adolescence.
However, these relationships were inconsistent in adulthood. The researchers noted that “a history of higher depressive symptoms was associated with higher frequencies of psychoactive drug use over time.”
They also reported that “users of mental health services in adolescence were less likely to use drugs in older adolescence and adulthood.” Moreover, they found that “relationships between early drug use and later drug use in adulthood cannot be solely explained by the gateway hypothesis.”
Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?: Conflicting Research
Overall, research on the gateway drug theory has produced conflicting results. While some studies support the idea, others bring it into question. One study from the RAND Corporation failed to identify a significant gateway effect related to marijuana use.
RAND theorized another possibility, however, claiming that there “is some support for such a ‘common-factor’ model in studies of genetic, familial, and environmental factors influencing drug use. The presence of a common propensity could explain why people who use one drug are so much more likely to use another than are people who do not use the first drug.”
Researchers also noted that marijuana use often precedes the use of harder drugs, mainly because marijuana is more accessible earlier in life than say, heroin or cocaine. Nonetheless, this may be a case in which correlation does not equal causation.
Finally, an extensive 2017 review found moderate evidence of a link between marijuana use and the development of substance dependence or substance abuse disorder related to alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. However, it did not garner sufficient evidence for a direct causal relationship.
Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?: Other Problems
Those who support this theory may not take into account the availability of certain legal substances, such as alcohol. Also, medical and recreational marijuana legalization has become increasingly common throughout the U.S.
If a person drinks alcohol or smokes marijuana, they are likely to do so earlier in life because these substances are more accessible than, say, heroin or cocaine. Of note, few people contend that caffeine or the use of prescription drugs as directed can encourage one to use other substances.
Aside from possible effects on the reward pathway and an increase in dopamine, there is little reason to presume that the use of one substance would act as a gateway to others. Different types of drugs act on different receptors in the brain, which are responsible for addiction.
For example, yes, it is reasonable that a person addicted to oxycodone would progress to heroin because the same opioid receptors are affected. However, marijuana use affects cannabinoid receptors, which are not involved at all with opioid use.
Finally, some who support the gateway drug theory use statistics misleadingly. For example, these supporters may point to a high percentage of heroin users having used marijuana in the past. They may contend that this implies that a high percentage of marijuana users progress to heroin use, which is not correct.
Even if it were proven that all of those who used heroin had previously used marijuana, it would not logically follow that marijuana was the causative agent in their progression to heroin use. It also does not prove that all marijuana users or even a significant percentage of them later used heroin.
So, is marijuana a gateway drug? Although marijuana use often comes before the use of other drugs, this, in no way, indicates that a person who smokes marijuana will progress to harder drugs. There are many other factors involved, and it could simply be that a person who uses one drug may have a propensity toward substance use of all kinds.
Treatment for Drug Addiction
While the gateway drug theory is still under debate, there’s no question that drug abuse in and of itself can become a severe problem that requires professional treatment.
There’s no cure for addiction and simply telling a person to stop doesn’t work. Fortunately, however, there are effective ways to treat addiction. What treatment is best depends on various factors and circumstances, such as severity of the addiction and whether there’s accompanying mental health conditions (like anxiety or depression).
Our addiction programs are comprehensive, evidence-based, and include essential services, such as behavioral therapy, group support, counseling, and more.
It’s easy to procrastinate getting help, but reaching out for support is the first step to feeling better. We offer confidential counseling services or can help connect you with resources in your community. Just talking about what’s going on can help you feel better, so take that first step by reaching out for help or opening up to a trusted friend or family member. There are ways to feel better, but you have to tell someone what you’re going through.
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