I get this questions a lot especially from parents concerned about their teenage kids. They’re worried that once their son or daughter starts using marijuana, even if it’s for medical reasons, he or she will go on to using other drugs, like cocaine, heroin, or meth.
What’s a gateway drug?
To answer this question, I want to start with what exactly the gateway drug theory is. It’s a concept that was made popular back in the 1980’s during the War on Drugs and it’s this idea that the use of one drug “opens the gate” to using other drugs.
Which drug is THE gateway drug?
So most people go around assuming that marijuana is THE gateway drug, but is there actually truth to this assumption?
I took a look at the research and here’s what I found…
- A study published in 1985 examined the alcohol and drug use of over 27,000 7th and 8th-grade students in New York State and they found that “unless alcohol was used first, there was a very small likelihood that any other drug…would be used later in life.” Basically, the researchers concluded that “alcohol serves as the gateway to all other drug use.”
- A study published in 2012 analyzed survey results from 14,600 12th graders throughout the country. The results found that alcohol was the most commonly used substance and the use of alcohol increased the likelihood of using other licit and illicit substances. The researchers in this study concluded that “alcohol is the gateway drug potentially leading to additional substance use.
Are you shocked by the results of this research? I know I was! Just like you, somewhere along the way, (I think it was D.A.R.E.) I had been taught that marijuana is THE gateway drug, but apparently the research says otherwise.
So, now let’s talk about what leads to marijuana use?
- In one study, researchers Kandel and Yamaguchi, stated that adolescents are not likely to use marijuana unless they’ve previously experimented with alcohol and cigarettes.
- Another study that followed 800 adolescents from age 10 to 18 found that those who had used alcohol were more likely to use marijuana.
Does marijuana use lead to the use of other drugs?
Now, let’s move on to that all-important question, does marijuana use lead to the use of other drugs.
- Overall, according to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine, “there is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are…linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”
- I came across a really interesting study published in 2010 that looked at patterns of drug use across 17 countries.
- So, they found that Japan had very low rates of marijuana use (1.6% by age 29), but, had a high rate of illicit drug use (83.2% by age 29) and this was without these 18 to 29 year olds ever having used marijuana before.
Basically, a lack of access to or lack of use of marijuana didn’t really decrease the use of other illicit drugs.
- Now, in the Netherlands, where as we all know that marijuana’s easily available for purchase at so-called coffee shops, the study found that marijuana use was less strongly associated with the use of other illicit drugs, compared to other countries, like the United States. Now remember this was back in 2010 when marijuana wasn’t as easily available as as it was in the Netherlands.
So, this goes to show that having access to or using marijuana doesn’t necessarily increase the use of other illicit drugs.
Alright, I hope that helped to address the particular concern about medical marijuana potentially being a gateway drug.
- Assessing the ‘‘Gateway Hypothesis’’ among middle and high school students in Tennessee.
- Alcohol: The gateway to other drug use among secondary-school students.
- Alcohol as a gateway drug: a study of US 12th graders.
- Patterns of drug use from adolescence to young adulthood: II. Sequences of progression.
- The dynamics of alcohol and marijuana initiation: patterns and predictors of first use in adolescence.
- Marijuana and medicine: assessing the science base: a summary of the 1999 Institute of Medicine report.
- 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