Is Marijuana A Gateway Drug?
The question of whether marijuana is a gateway drug is a topic of ongoing debate and research. Marijuana may be a gateway drug for some, but not for others. Marijuana is considered a soft drug, which is a drug that has relatively low harm potential. The effects of using marijuana are generally considered less severe and less addictive compared with other drugs.
What Is a Gateway Drug?
The term gateway drug refers to a substance believed to increase the chances of experimenting with other more dangerous or addictive substances. Gateway drugs are often considered mild or socially acceptable drugs like tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana. Some experts believe that the impact of these substances on the brain’s reward system increases the likelihood of trying other drugs like cocaine, heroin, or methamphetamine.
Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?
The question of whether marijuana is a gateway drug is highly contested. Marijuana is the first substance tried by around 14-22% of the population.2 According to the common liabilities theory, marijuana may lead individuals prone to seeking out novel experiences to engage in other drug use.3 However, no clear “cause-and-effect” mechanism definitively determines that one particular drug inherently leads to other drug use.
During the 1970s and 1980s in the United States, marijuana became stigmatized and linked with the concept of being a “gateway drug.” The theory that marijuana use leads to harder drug use gained popularity during the war on drugs in the 1980s, supported by government propaganda campaigns.1 The use of marijuana specifically in the teenage population became one of the biggest concerns of this campaign leading to mass incarcerations for minimal possession.
Other Potential Gateway Drugs
Alcohol and tobacco, which are legal and more socially accepted substances, can also be considered gateway drugs as they are often experimented with first and could lead to riskier or illicit drug use further down the line. Prescription drugs are another possible gateway substance, especially for people who have become addicted to painkillers and may move on to illicit drug use.
According to American Addiction Centers, the most abused drug by adolescents is alcohol, beginning approximately at age 15.2 Since the 1960s, over 65% of all substances people tried first were alcohol. Therefore, alcohol is a far more likely gateway drug than marijuana.
Is the Gateway Drug Theory Proven?
The gateway drug theory is not proven. Drug use is influenced by a range of factors, including environmental, biological, psychological, and social factors, such as trauma, risk-taking, cultural influences, and peer pressure, which could also play a key role in increasing the likelihood of experimenting with different drugs.
It is essential to recognize that various factors could increase drug use vulnerability, and it is necessary to consider the broader context of a drug user’s situation when discussing the idea of a gateway drug. Effective education and prevention efforts should be undertaken, considering how substances and other life experiences might interact to stimulate further drug experimentation rather than simply centering on one drug or method.
Does Legalizing Marijuana Lead to Using Other Drugs?
There is no unified opinion on whether legalizing marijuana will lead to other drug use. The pipeline theory hypothesizes that legalization may increase marijuana use, leading to more people experimenting with more dangerous drugs to enhance or prolong their high. On the other hand, the substitution theory contends that marijuana legalization may decrease the use of other harmful substances by providing a more benign alternative for pain relief.3
When Does Marijuana Become a Gateway Drug?
There are several factors that can increase the likelihood of marijuana being a gateway drug. Drug usage trends found that factors like genes, personality and risk-taking behavior, accessibility to high-risk environments and positive social support and factors beyond drug use itself could significantly influence how drug use develops.
Older hypotheses suggested that frequent marijuana use by young individuals may influence an increased risk of the progression to more potent substances. These argue that early marijuana usage is coupled with negative social, economic, and environmental determinants or reduces systemic resistance to subsequent drug abuse occurring. However, these conclusions can be disputed, and other, more modern hypotheses dive explicitly into issues with foundational causation.
Factors that can increase the risk of misusing marijuana include:
Mental health issues: Substance use can be a method used by those trying to deal with difficult emotional stressors; heavy use or addiction could lead to or exacerbate underlying mental health issues as well.
Genetics: Some hypotheses conclude that genetics plays a crucial role in addiction. People with a family history of addiction are more likely to have addictive tendencies themselves. Inherited vulnerability could manifest in a higher susceptibility to impulsive behavior or sensitivity to drug effects. However, it is worth pointing out that “inherited vulnerability” does not necessarily mean “genetic predisposition.”
Trauma and environment: Trauma experienced in early life, Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs), and community-level structural weaknesses can contribute to individuals turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with negative emotions or memories.
Peer pressure and social influences: Peer pressure tends to make individuals feel pressured to select certain drugs or behavior to fit in, or others make them believe a particular drug is less harmful than it really is.
Availability and accessibility: A popular expression is that easy availability could increase feelings of risk and make it easier to try other drugs, resulting in developing more significant harmful use patterns that emerge into addiction.
Facts and Myths About Marijuana
Marijuana is a topic that can be complex due to various rumors, mythos, and influential media and cultural narratives. People can have incomplete and distorted impressions of marijuana, influenced by erroneous claims about its supposed health benefits or safety. While some may make seductive claims arguing that it is completely safe, others may assert it is just as dangerous as other substances.
Common facts and myths about marijuana include:
Marijuana Is Not Addictive
This is both fact and myth. Marijuana is not found to be chemically addicting. However, some individuals can experience addiction to this substance, and its continued use could contribute to exhibiting withdrawal symptoms upon discontinuation, known as cannabis use disorder.4 Long-term, heavy marijuana use can lead to drug dependence and addiction like any other substance.
Marijuana is Natural And Can’t Be Harmful
Medical marijuana use has been legalized in many states because some chemical compounds found in marijuana can have medicinal benefits that may alleviate certain conditions or symptoms, such as chronic pain, anxiety, and depression.3 However, prolonged and excessive use of marijuana in some individuals can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.
Marijuana Is Stronger Now Than in the Past
Marijuana is stronger now than in the past. Marijuana is a drug derived from the cannabis plant that contains the psychoactive compound THC, which produces a “high” or altered state of consciousness. One study found that the average THC concentration in confiscated marijuana samples rose from 4% in 1995 to 12% in 2014.4 Additionally, stronger strains of cannabis, such as “dabs” can contain up to 80% THC or more.
You Cannot Overdose on Marijuana
While it is improbable or difficult to consume a fatal poison by using only marijuana consumption alone, abusing the drug can become a hazard that leads to many physical, emotional, and mental problems and even addiction.5 Prolonged use can also increase the possibility of accidents, depression, psychosis, and long-term cognitive decline. These risks are especially high for young individuals using marijuana for the first time in excess quantities. Often described as amotivational syndrome, some individuals who abuse marijuana can experience a general loss of motivation or avolition towards learning new skills, social engagement, academic or occupational development, or future-oriented goal accomplishment.
Marijuana is Legal in Some States
Marijuana is rapidly becoming legal throughout the United States for medical and recreational use. Colorado, one of the first U.S. states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, saw a nearly 50% increase in tourism in the year following legalization. This has certainly added complexity to the debate regarding marijuana’s potential benefits vs. dangers.
Marijuana Aids the Creative Process
The anecdotal evidence for marijuana’s impact on creativity definitely exists, but the scientific data is still far from conclusive and it tends to vary from one individual to the next. While some users do report feeling more creative or open to new ideas while under the influence of marijuana, others might describe it as more of a euphoric or relaxing experience that can be quite different from any sober creative headspace. There is also contradictory evidence suggesting that marijuana use can decrease creativity in some ways due to its effects on short-term memory, attention span, and the ability to focus on complex tasks.
One of the most enduring and bizarre myths about marijuana comes from the 1936 U.S. propaganda film Reefer Madness. The film portrays marijuana as a dangerous drug that causes people to go insane and commit violent crimes. The film’s most infamous scene shows a group of teenagers smoking marijuana and then going on a wild rampage, including one who goes insane and begins attacking anyone in sight with an ax. This myth of marijuana-induced hysteria has been debunked repeatedly, but it still persists as a cultural touchstone and has even spanned cult followings worldwide. Although the majority of the population today knows that such extreme and wildly exaggerated claims are patently untrue, it stands as a dark reminder of a bygone era of drug enforcement propaganda.
Marijuana Has Medicinal Properties
In modern times, research has confirmed that marijuana can be effective in treating conditions such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis and reducing symptoms associated with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. Some states and countries have even legalized marijuana specifically for medical use, recognizing its potential as an effective and relatively safe treatment option for a range of ailments. This emerging area of study is fascinating and continues to show amazing promise for patients who choose to use cannabis as a medicine.
Marijuana Causes Brain Damage
The belief that marijuana causes brain damage is often attributed to studies conducted in the 1970s that showed changes in the brains of rats exposed to high concentrations of marijuana smoke. However, subsequent research has shown that these studies were deeply flawed and did not adequately control for other factors, such as environmental stress of pre-existing conditions.
Treatment for Marijuana Abuse
Seeking treatment for marijuana addiction and abuse is essential to the recovery process. Typically, the treatment intervention’s standard involves collaborating with a healthcare provider and creating a unique treatment program tailored to an individual’s circumstances toward addiction. The recovery process is not easy, but with personal commitment and support, lasting healing is achievable.
A comprehensive plan usually includes the formation of an aftercare process, community support systems, detoxification, pharmacotherapy, and psychotherapeutic counseling. Cruciallyb the plan of action has to concentrate on the particular individual persevering through addiction and related existing psychological complications. There is a need to educate on essential life skills, stress management techniques, and physical activities guided as a core aspect of the recovery process.
While some may benefit from online therapy options, others will require direct individual therapy. Individual therapy allows individuals to discuss and process more intimate details related to the origin of their unique addiction to marijuana. Utilizing an online therapist directory is becoming easier than ever for individuals to find therapists who meet their needs.
Individual therapy provides several benefits for individuals struggling with dependence on marijuana or those seeking to break from long-term unhealthy daily use habits. Therapists specializing in addiction clearly understand the issues and can approach the conversation with accurate and correctly timed medical support or information. They offer practical assistance or resources and set up more achievable objectives to support the gradual wearing off of otherwise unhealthy dependencies.
Therapy options for addressing marijuana abuse and addiction include:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT teaches self-management and emotional regulation to coincide with habit-breaking efforts. Frustration and addiction cessations is common during marijuana use, prompting therapy perception and initiation to motivate change. CBT allows individuals to explore and process their thoughts, behaviors, and actions associated with marijuana abuse.
Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT for marijuana addiction helps individuals learn how to manage distressing feelings, such as anxiety, depression, sadness, boredom, and other triggers that might cause cravings, by reinforcing adversity skills positively. Recognizing negative thinking styles and maladaptive behaviors inherited in addictions like marijuana during treatment produces-self discovery capabilities.
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR activates the human brain’s unique capability for information processing, aiming to explore past experiences, traumas, memories, or states of mind contributing to marijuana addiction. Thus, through controlled and integrative thinking, individuals learn to detach themselves from the effects of external triggers and withdrawal symptoms which inherently feed addiction.
Motivational Interviewing (MI): Marijuana addiction clients engage with an MI practitioner to explore pre-existing patterns, drug-use history, and fears of abandonment and failure by emphasizing ego principles, self-accountability, and self-analysis. MI process centralizes on conveying empathy, building rapport, active listening, motivation-enhancing feedback setting, and creating frameworks for regular progress checking within the individual.
Group Therapy and Support Groups
Group therapy and support groups could provide benefits for overcoming marijuana addiction in several ways. Peer support groups can provide opportunities for individuals with similar experiences and problems to come together and offer emotional support to each other. Group therapy can encourage abstinence and promote an understanding of relapse triggers while getting suggestions on ways to avoid and cope. Often, these groups can provide an individual with new skills, such as communication, relaxation, and coping mechanisms.
Self-organized informal support groups of peers often continue meeting outside of therapy or intervention sessions, bolstering long-term outside support. Thus, group therapy sessions can provide sober social networking platforms rather than feeling alone or abandoned after rehabilitation.
Intensive Outpatient Treatment
Intensive outpatient treatment (IOP) for marijuana addiction focuses on providing a flexible and convenient form of outpatient recovery program as an alternative to inpatient treatment for individuals who want to preserve some level of independence with work, school and family commitments.
The program features mandatory attendance of therapy sessions for a mandatory minimum of 3-4 days weekly, usually lasting several hours/day and adequately structured to address daily challenges that stimulate drug abuse. IOP allows individuals in rehabilitation to relate their growth processes to relatable experiences from other people by sharing their progress, current needs, and recovery techniques.
In My Experience
I shy away from the debate of whether marijuana is a gateway drug. But, I was asked to write this article. So here we are. There are too many socioeconomic and political motivations involved with this campaign. Although gateway drugs are of concern, the real problem is our mental health. I have performed hundreds of diagnostic evaluations for individuals suffering from addiction. These evaluations discuss a list of possible substances that an individual has experimented with or abused in their lifetime. During these evaluations, not one person has said, “You know, I have to use drugs every day because life is terrific.”. The true gateway is being so hopeless about our life that we must turn to poison to take our minds off our ailments, even if just for a few hours. If we truly want to crack down on “gateway drugs,” then we need to stop looking at the debate, the hypocrisy, the laws, or the ethics – we need to look at ourselves.
NIDA. 2021, May 24. Is marijuana a gateway drug?. Retrieved from https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-gateway-drug
The Real Gateway Drug (2022) American Addiction Centers. Available at: https://americanaddictioncenters.org/the-real-gateway-drug
Bachhuber, M. A., Saloner, B., Cunningham, C. O., & Barry, C. L. (2014). Medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality in the United States, 1999-2010. JAMA internal medicine, 174(10), 1668–1673. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.4005
ElSohly, M. A., Mehmedic, Z., Foster, S., Gon, C., Chandra, S., & Church, J. C. (2016). Changes in Cannabis Potency Over the Last 2 Decades (1995-2014): Analysis of Current Data in the United States. Biological psychiatry, 79(7), 613–619. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.01.004
Cannabis (marijuana) (2023) National Institutes of Health. Available at: https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/cannabis-marijuana