The question of whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug is one that’s widely debated. There’s a long-standing conversation about the concept of gateway drugs in general. Some people say there’s no such thing as a gateway drug.
Others feel certain drugs do put a person at higher risk of using harder substances.
The reality is that other factors predispose someone to use more dangerous drugs and ultimately develop an addiction to illicit substances or prescription drugs.
There’s probably some truth on both sides of the debate regarding the gateway drug theory.
Discussing the topic is especially important now. Recreational marijuana is becoming legal in many states around the country, changing our perception of the drug. While it’s still federally an illicit drug, the legality can make it seem like a completely risk-free substance, which isn’t true according to addiction and medical professionals. Although it’s not risk-free, that also doesn’t mean using marijuana is going to automatically lead to addiction.
What is a Gateway Drug?
In the general sense, a gateway drug is a substance that could lead to the use of another substance. Gateway substances are sometimes called soft drugs. With the example of marijuana, also called cannabis, some feel that using it even casually could lead to the use of harder drugs like heroin or cocaine.
- The term gateway drug started in the 1980s, and it became widely circulated.
- With these drugs, the concept underlying the term is that cannabis affects the brain’s neural pathways. These effects then create a so-called taste for drugs in the user. It’s not just marijuana that’s described as a gateway drug.
- The gateway drugs list also includes nicotine and alcohol.
- When you look at a gateway drugs list, they’re “softer” and more culturally accepted substances. Someone might be more likely to try them simply because they’re more available and not viewed in the same negative light as harder substances.
- There is a process called cross-sensitization that occurs when you use a substance. This process can heighten brain activity and make users more likely to seek out something stronger.
It’s not as simple as being a gateway drug, however. Drug use and addiction are very complex and individual. Genetic and environmental factors play a role in whether or not someone tries certain substances and whether they will become addicted. This is true of illegal drugs and also legal substances with addictive potential.
The concept of marijuana as a gateway drug or gateway drugs, in general, could be just one of many factors that raise the likelihood of someone trying something more dangerous.
There is another situation that’s relevant when talking about gateway substances. The opioid epidemic has seen many people start taking prescription medication for pain. Then, once they develop an addiction and dependence, they start using harder opioids like heroin.
Where did the Idea of Gateway Substances Come From?
In the 1980s, researchers started to use the gateway theory to describe the initiation of the stages of addiction and addictive substances as part of addiction prevention efforts.
- In 1985, a report found alcohol was a so-called stepping stone to harder drugs. The research on gateway drugs continued to expand from there.
- The national program Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) in the 1990s spoke about three gateway drugs which were the ones we named above—marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol.
- There is a problem with the concept of the gateway hypothesis, though. Most people who use marijuana, alcohol, or tobacco don’t move on to harder drugs or more harmful substances.
- There is some evidence that someone who tries marijuana may have a brain wired to take more risks than someone who doesn’t, which could be an independent link, but it doesn’t show that cannabis use is a gateway.
- Some people can use marijuana recreationally and never develop a problem. The same is true of people prescribed painkillers for legitimate use and for people who drink alcohol occasionally.
- At the same time, a person could drink a few times and then quickly develop an addiction where they use alcohol every day.
Factors That Predispose Someone to Addiction
As we talked about, substance abuse or addiction is the result of many complex factors, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It’s not as simple as saying someone tried marijuana, which made them an addict or led them to use heroin or another illicit drug.
- Studies show that anywhere from 40-60% of the predisposition for the development of addiction relates to genetic factors. There’s not one addiction gene, but we know that people with addiction disorders tend to have children who struggle with addiction at much higher rates.
- Another risk factor that could make someone more likely to become addicted or try harder drugs after using so-called gateway drugs has a mental illness. People with co-occurring mental health disorders often have higher addiction rates than the general population.
- Data shows that people with a mental disorder are at least twice as likely to have a substance use disorder, including drug or alcohol addiction.
- Brain chemistry is a factor predisposing some people to addiction. People with low dopamine levels naturally are more likely to abuse substances because drugs and alcohol create an unnatural surge in the neurotransmitter.
- Serotonin deficiency, associated with OCD, anxiety, and depression, can put someone at a greater risk of a substance use disorder. People with low serotonin levels may use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.
- The social environment someone is in can affect addictive behaviors and raise the risk of addiction. If a person is in an environment where they see substance abuse, they could be more likely to then emulate these behaviors in their own life.
Age as a Determining Factor
While the question of whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug or gateway drugs exist at all can be gray areas, we do know one thing. The younger someone uses drugs or alcohol, including marijuana, the more likely they will develop an addiction later in life.
- The age someone first tries dangerous substances or addictive drugs is perhaps the biggest determinant of addiction later in life due primarily to its effects on brain development.
- The brains of adolescents and teens aren’t fully developed.
- When a young person uses a psychoactive drug, it impacts their balance of neurotransmitters and affects the brain’s reward pathways.
- The drugs can significantly impact the teen brain, leading to a reward response when they use drugs or alcohol.
- Drugs can also permanently change the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This part of the brain helps with decision-making and self-control. If a teen starts using marijuana at an early age, their decision-making is impacted. As a result, they may go on to make other destructive choices involving substances.
- In animal studies, THC from marijuana seems to prime the brain when used early in life, leading to later enhanced responses to other drugs. That is consistent with the idea of a gateway drug.
An alternative theory to the gateway drug hypothesis is that people who are already more vulnerable to drug-taking behaviors are more likely to start with whatever is easily available. In the adolescent and teen years, this will be marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco. They start with those substances just because they’re there.
Final Thoughts—Are There Gateway Drugs?
There are potentially gateway drugs in that some people begin using them for various reasons, like accessibility. Then, they might move on to other drugs from there.
There’s not anything inherently different about marijuana that makes it a gateway drug any more than any other substance. There are also a lot of other factors that play a role in drug use and addiction. These factors include the environment someone grows up in, the age they start using drugs, and their mental health.