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Is Cannabis a Gateway Drug? Exploring the Myth

Cannabis has been called a gateway drug since the 1980’s, maybe longer. But what exactly is a gateway drug, and is the term even a legitimate one at this point? Does experimenting with cannabis ultimately guarantee a person will walk the long, arduous path to further drug use? Let's discuss.

What is a Gateway Drug?

According to Merriam Webster Dictionary, the very credible online version, a gateway drug is “a drug (such as alcohol or marijuana) whose use is thought to lead to the use of and dependence on a harder drug (such as cocaine or heroin).”

That sure is saying a lot in a few words. Essentially, a gateway drug is one that is seen as less harmful, but using it leads to the use of drugs that are more harmful. That sounds a lot like calling cannabis less harmful in one breath, yet still letting the federal government classify it as a Schedule 1 drug— the worst of the worst, the same as heroin. Which one is it?

For this writer, born in 1985, “Gateway Drug” was a term we learned as children in drug abuse prevention classes, used to scare us into staying away from marijuana for fear of being pulled through this mystical gateway portal into a terrible, rotten place where life would be meaningless because you were a shameful drug addict with no future. So for me, it was pretty simple— avoid the evil marijuana plant, or be dealt a certain doom. All of the kids in my elementary school got the message loud and clear.

Is the Gateway Theory True?

But is the gateway theory true? I’m not a scientist, so I looked to those who are! According to ones at the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (a government entity),

“Early exposure to cannabinoids in adolescent rodents decreases the reactivity of brain dopamine reward centers later in adulthood. 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… these findings are consistent with the idea of marijuana as a "gateway drug."

This means that if the study on rats translates to humans, using cannabis and getting a rush of feel-good chemicals could decrease the natural feel-good abilities of a person’s brain later in life, which increases the chance that person would try and get that feeling by using other drugs.

Back to the report,

“However, the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, "harder" substances.”

Wait. So, in short, that means that the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s stance is that sometimes people that use marijuana go on to use harder drugs but that most people that use marijuana do not go on to use harder drugs?

The report continues,

“It is important to note that other factors besides biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in a person’s risk for drug use. An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs. Further research is needed to explore this question.”

And that’s how the report ends. In the most straightforward terms, it says that using marijuana doesn’t lead to harder drugs for most people and someone’s biology and social environment are “critical” when assessing someone’s risk of using drugs.

The True Gateway Drugs

All this has got me thinking. You know what the true gateways may be? They could be childhood trauma, easy access to mind-altering substances, and curiosity brewing away in underdeveloped brains that just haven’t been hard-wired to make the best choices yet. The gateway could be pure boredom.

Down in Arlington, Texas, where I grew up, alcohol was never framed as a gateway drug, and for that reason, I drank copious amounts of liquor while staying away from what I was taught was the REAL gateway: smoking weed.

Not doing drugs was pretty paramount to who I was and how I identified with myself until I hit the age of 15. By that time, I had definitely had alcohol poisoning on at least one occasion, and I’d watched most of my cool weekend friends smoke weed with no negative side effects. I’d also seen lots of those same weekend friends take prescription pills and even acid, and those negative side effects were very clear. I may be a proponent of psychedelics, but I still don’t believe in their recreational use by children. So before I turned 16, I tried smoking weed for the first time— and I didn’t hate it. Nothing bad happened, no one had a reefer madness freakout, and I went back to school on Monday like nothing happened. I continued to drink alcohol to excess on weekends, smoked cannabis occasionally, and only experimented with substances after becoming an adult and going through some traumatic situations. I’ve never been drug dependent, but I do suffer from depression, and I’d lay more blame for that on the 20+ years of alcohol use than anything else really.

I think it’s relevant to mention that through all my teen years when I hung out with these “cool weekend friends” who were doing drugs, I only met one or two of their parents— and my parents never really reached out to talk to anyone else’s mom or dad either. Maybe all of our parents trusted us explicitly, but it’s more likely that they’d all worked 40+ hour weeks and wanted the weekend off to feel like a person again. I get it either way. Whatever the reason, the reality remains the same— almost no one’s parents were around. That was a fairly massive gateway to doing pretty much whatever we could make happen.

Final Thoughts

Some extra food for thought… in my research, I browsed the website of a rehabilitation center that was warning against marijuana as a gateway drug. The website went on to list many different behavioral, psychological, and physical signs to look out for that would point to addiction. It was what you’d imagine, you know, things Dr. Phil would tell you to keep an eye out for in your troubled teen— missing school or work, sudden change in friends and hobbies, mood swings, hygienic habit changes, fluctuation in weight, etc. And as I read these very basic symptoms it occurred to me that there are countless traumas these are symptoms of too. If anyone is exhibiting changes like the above, SOMETHING is likely going on, but jumping to the conclusion that a person is on drugs would be so shortsighted and uneducated. And if they ARE on drugs, WHY are they on drugs? Just something to consider.

So are gateway drugs really a thing? Yes and no, but mostly no. You want to stay connected with your kids, with your younger siblings, with the youth in your life, because that is what is going to make the difference in the long run, right? Drug addiction is a symptom of something larger, not a result of using cannabis.



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