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Is Cannabis a ‘Gateway Drug’?

August 28, 2017
It’s a theory that’s been presented as fact by marijuana foes since the Harry Anslinger era: By partaking of cannabis, humans risk being inexorably led to harder drugs like cocaine and heroin.

This “cannabis leads to harder narcotics” argument gets trotted out whenever efforts to normalize cannabis are underway, and the expansion of marijuana legalization across North America has predictably breathed new life into this old trope. So let’s settle it once and for all: Is cannabis a “gateway drug”?

On the “yes” side, the strongest evidence comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Early exposure to cannabinoids in adolescent rodents decreases the reactivity of brain dopamine reward centers later in adulthood,” reports NIDA. “To the extent that these findings generalize to humans, this could help explain the increased vulnerability for addiction to other substances of misuse later in life that most epidemiological studies have reported for people who begin marijuana use early in life.”

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NIDA also cites THC’s alleged ability to “prime” the brain for enhanced responses to other drugs, via the phenomenon known as “cross-sensitization”: “[R]ats previously administered THC show heightened behavioral response not only when further exposed to THC but also when exposed to other drugs such as morphine,” reports NIDA.

However, NIDA notes that “cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs and are, like marijuana, also typically used before a person progresses to other, more harmful substances.”

Beyond such generalities and rat-based supposition lies the supporting evidence for the “No, cannabis is not a gateway drug” argument.

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Exhibit A: the countless living humans who have experienced cannabis—and even incorporated it as a regular part of their lives—without being inspired to progress to dangerous narcotics like cocaine and heroin. (In fact, cannabis is increasingly being recognized as a tool to help addicts get off dangerous drugs.)

The majority of cannabis’ potential as a gateway drug comes from its prohibition.

Exhibit B: the fact that the majority of cannabis’ potential as a gateway drug comes from its prohibition, which requires those who want cannabis to buy it through the illegal market, often from dealers with more to sell than cannabis and incentive to sell as much of everything as possible. In this scenario, the primary force driving cannabis users to harder narcotics are illegal cannabis dealers selling harder narcotics. The prohibition creates the connection. Remove the prohibition and the connection between cannabis and dangerous narcotics falls away.

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Exhibit C: the array of scientific studies that have tested the “gateway drug” theory and found it implausible, or at least difficult if not impossible to prove.

Exhibit D: the fact that even prohibitionists like D.A.R.E. and the federal government aren’t bothering to defend the gateway theory anymore.

The verdict: No, cannabis is not a “gateway drug.” A puff of weed will not lead directly to a needle in your arm. It may, however, lead you to eat deep-fried things you regret. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Dave Schmader's Bio Image

Dave Schmader

Dave Schmader is the author of the book "Weed: The User's Guide." Follow him on Twitter @davidschmader

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  • James Tripp

    It is a gateway drug that leads to health.

  • peace aloha

    cannajuana is a gateway to happiness.

    • handytrim

      Indeed, marijuakanehbosemuanna is really neat.

  • DWallace32342

    The gateway concept is frequently brought up. Over the years I have collected much information on the subject.

    If prohibition has any effect, it makes cannabis a gateway to other illicit drugs.

    The gateway drug theory, that a unique pharmacological effect of cannabis causes the use of hard drugs, has been discredited by the many peer reviewed studies which have examined it.[1,2,3,4,5,6,14,15,16,19,24]

    If the gateway theory were to have any merit, then alcohol and tobacco would be the true gateway drugs as nearly all have tried these before cannabis.[1,6,23] There are many factors that determine which illicit substance will be used first, including availability and culture. In Japan, where cannabis use is not popular and largely frowned upon, 83% of illicit drug users did not use illicit cannabis first.[19] In the U.S., since cannabis is by far the most popular and available illegal recreational substance, it is unlikely that one would find many illicit hard drug users who did not encounter and use illicit cannabis first.[1] This does not mean that cannabis caused their hard drug use. Rather, it was their pre-existing interest in recreational substances combined with their willingness to try illicit substances and cannabis was simply, and predictably, the first encountered.[3,14,19]

    On a related note, studies have shown that cannabinoids can help treat those addicted to hard drugs and alcohol, and that it is an “exit drug” for some.[4,7,18,22,25]

    If anything, the prohibition of cannabis makes the hard drug problem worse. Once someone breaks the law to try the very popular and relatively safe drug cannabis, their reluctance to try another illegal substance diminishes. This is both because of their newly increased doubts of government honesty regarding the harmful effects of those substances as well, and their newly reduced respect for laws against drugs in general. Cannabis prohibition also connects cannabis consumers to the hard drug market. Imagine if beer merchants also sold heroin, cocaine and meth. This is the situation that the prohibition of cannabis creates for its consumers. It places a very popular substance into these otherwise unpopular markets, strengthening them and expanding their reach. Also, with no legal avenue to resolve disputes, cannabis prohibition increases the crime associated with these markets.

    Efforts to prevent hard drug abuse are undermined and resources misspent when gateway theory is accepted as valid. A recent extensive review on the subject concluded that: “The promotion of the erroneous gateway theory ultimately does the public a disservice, including the hindering of intervention.”[19]

    Regardless, one major concern is that relaxed laws will lead to significantly increased teen usage, but this has not been the case.[20] Legalizing medical cannabis in the U.S. has not increased cannabis usage in teens.[8,9,10,11,21] Decriminalization does not result in increased cannabis consumption, for any age group, except for a small, temporary increase during the first few years.[12,13] Portugal eventually saw reduced adolescent cannabis use after decriminalizing all drugs in 2001.[17]

    SOURCES:

    1. Joy et al. Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base. Institute of Medicine. 1999.
    2. Morral et al. Reassessing the marijuana gateway effect. Drug Policy Research Center, RAND. Addiction. 2002.
    3. Cleveland HH & Wiebe RP. Understanding the association between adolescent marijuana use and later serious drug use: gateway effect or developmental trajectory? Dev Psychopathol. 2008.
    4. O’Connell TJ & Bou-Matar CB. Long term marijuana users seeking medical cannabis in California (2001–2007): demographics, social characteristics, patterns of cannabis and other drug use of 4117 applicants. Harm Reduction Journal. 2007.
    5. Wen et al. The Effect of Medical Marijuana Laws on Marijuana, Alcohol, and Hard Drug Use. The National Bureau of Economic Research. 2014.
    6. Tristan et al. Alcohol as a Gateway Drug: A Study of US 12th Graders. Journal of School Health. 2012.
    7. Oliere et al. Modulation of the Endocannabinoid System: Vulnerability Factor and New Treatment Target for Stimulant Addiction. Front Psychiatry. 2013. Review.
    8. Choo et al. The Impact of State Medical Marijuana Legislation on Adolescent Marijuana Use. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2014.
    9. Lynne-Landsman et al. Effects of state medical marijuana laws on adolescent marijuana use. Am J Public Health. 2013.
    10. Harper et al. Do medical marijuana laws increase marijuana use? Replication study and extension. Ann Epidemiol. 2012.
    11. Anderson et al. Medical Marijuana Laws and Teen Marijuana Use. IZA 2012.
    12. Williams J, Bretteville-Jensen AL. Does liberalizing cannabis laws increase cannabis use? J Health Econ. 2014.
    13. Single EW. The impact of marijuana decriminalization: an update. J Public Health Policy. 1989.
    14. Tarter et al. Predictors of Marijuana Use in Adolescents Before and After Licit Drug Use: Examination of the Gateway Hypothesis. The American Journal of Psychiatry. 2006.
    15. Van Gundy K & Rebellon CJ. A Life-course Perspective on the “Gateway Hypothesis”. J Health Soc Behav. 2010.
    16. Tarter et al. Predictors of marijuana use in adolescents before and after licit drug use: examination of the gateway hypothesis. Am J Psychiatry. 2006.
    17. Hughes C E and Stevens A. What Can We Learn From The Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?. Brit J Criminol. 2010.
    18. Reiman A. Cannabis as a substitute for alcohol and other drugs. Harm Reduct J. 2009.
    19. Vanyukov et al. Common liability to addiction and “gateway hypothesis”: theoretical, empirical and evolutionary perspective. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2012. Review.
    20. Simons-Morton et al. Cross-national comparison of adolescent drinking and cannabis use in the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands. Int J Drug Policy. 2010.
    21. Hasin et al. Medical marijuana laws and adolescent marijuana use in the USA from 1991 to 2014: results from annual, repeated cross-sectional surveys. The Lancet. 2015.
    22. Bisaga et al. The effects of dronabinol during detoxification and the initiation of treatment with extended release naltrexone. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2015.
    23. Barry et al. Prioritizing Alcohol Prevention: Establishing Alcohol as the Gateway Drug and Linking Age of First Drink With Illicit Drug Use. J Sch Health. 2016.
    24. Degenhardt et al. Evaluating the drug use “gateway” theory using cross-national data: consistency and associations of the order of initiation of drug use among participants in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2010.
    25. Walsh Z et al. Medical cannabis and mental health: A guided systematic review. Clin Psychol Rev. 2017. Review.

  • PatrickMonkRn

    YES IT IS. Read Clint Werner’s excellent book:-
    “Marijuana:Gateway To Health”

    • SandyLester

      It is not.

  • SandyLester

    No, it is not.
    Saying it’s a gateway drug is like saying milk is a gateway drug to alcohisim.
    Cannabis is a way to be pain free, by using lotions, balms, edibles and yes smoking.
    People still hysterical about cannabis need to stop reading conspiracy theories.

    • Joh Urb

      you misspelled alcoholism….being stoned when writing is a bitch

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  • Benjamin Shamel

    “It may, however, lead you to eat deep-fried things you regret”. So true.

  • Joshua Jason Molloy

    Gateway my ass!! What is sitting in just about every fridge & food pantry right now (oops forgot the cooler dads &/or grandfathers keep in the garage lol), beers &/or spirits. If the parents did happen to smoke weed they in locked containers or hidden very well usually in their bedroom which every one I knew didn’t go into unless invited. I’m sure many heard grandma mention putting a little alcohol (think is was usually bourbon) on the baby’s gums when they are teething. Another reason alcohol is the gateway & not MJ is decisions people make while under the influence. Stoned decisions usually might be: What movie do I watch?, What video game to play? Do I really want to go to work or class or sit around being stoned. And finally the one we all know; I have the munchies. How bad of a beatdown should I put on my food supplies?Drunk decisions usually are: insisting you are barely buzzed yet you can’t walk even slightly strait & speech is very slurred. I can’t stand on my own two legs just finished puking (caused by alcohol poisoning BTW no matter how much MJ you put into you body you won’t risc dying by poison) then get into a vehicle & try driving I’m sure people involved with M.A.D.D. cantell y’all how that usually turns out. There are hundreds more but I’ll just finish up with decision pertaining to being the real gateway drug, Pretty much all of the people I talked to with a drug history never tried or wanted to try doing coke, meth, of opiates when stoned. it was alway while drunk. The selling point was usually someone telling them something like: This will let you be able to stay up drinking all night; This will get rid of the spins & sober you instantly; You can screw all night on this. There are many others, but these are the ones I herd most.