Gateway Drug: Myth or Fact?

MarijuanaIt’s a question that keeps coming up in the legalization debate: Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

Myth? Fact? Or just maybe, a little of both.

A better question, and the one that seems to get lost in most of the studies regarding marijuana use is; Why do people use drugs at all?

There is a tendency in anti-marijuana circles to answer this age old question using modern constructs, thus ignoring a simple biological truth. Drugs make a person feel good. Drugs cause the brain to release larger amounts of dopamine, the chemical that makes us feel good.

If dopamine release is the benchmark, then we can conclude almost anything we ingest for pleasure is a “Gateway Drug”.

Chocolate, sugar, caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, marijuana and yes, harder drugs like cocaine, meth and heroin all cause the brain to create increased amounts of dopamine.

Consider this, from the governments own website,

These findings are consistent with the idea of marijuana as a “gateway drug.” However, the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, “harder” substances. Also, cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs50 and are, like marijuana, also typically used before a person progresses to other, more harmful substances.

So, can we conclude that using marijuana, tobacco or alcohol will ultimately lead to heroin addiction? Hardly. If marijuana was truly a “Gateway Drug”, then why is it, by the government’s own admission, “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use harder drugs.”

If marijuana is truly a Gateway Drug, then why are there so many drug dealers who smoke pot and are selling heroin and cocaine, but are not using heroin or cocaine themselves? It’s not like they can’t get any. Are we suggesting that greed overrides addiction? Or could it be, the reasons for drug use are far more complex than the simplicity of the “Gateway Drug” explanation?

Again, from

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 like marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with other substance users increases their chances of trying other drugs. Further research is needed to explore this question.

In other words, social status, economic status and good old fashioned peer pressure can just as easily be behind drug use.

It’s a truth about youth that boundaries must be tested, social norms questioned, and the age old human need of being bad to feel good comes into play. Young people experiment. It’s just a fact of life.

Sometimes science goes too far and the idea that people make choices becomes subjugated to the notion that because of biology, we cannot control ourselves, and those choices are made for us. Nonsense.

Every study I’ve read through has had to admit that, the “Gateway Drug” explanation is in itself far too simple to fully explain how and why people end up using hard drugs like heroin.

The Rand Corporation is a highly respected think tank that has performed research on everything from drug abuse to nuclear war.

They compiled their own research as well as that of other institutions, finding that although on the surface, it could appear so, there is actually no definitive study that justifies claiming marijuana is a “Gateway Drug”:

This evidence would appear to make a strong case for a gateway effect. However, another explanation has been suggested: Those who use drugs may have an underlying propensity to do so that is not specific to any one drug. There is some support for such a “common-factor” model in studies of genetic, familial, and environmental factors influencing drug use. The presence of a common propensity could explain why people who use one drug are so much more likely to use another than are people who do not use the first drug. It has also been suggested that marijuana use precedes hard-drug use simply because opportunities to use marijuana come earlier in life than opportunities to use hard drugs. The DPRC analysis offers the first quantitative evidence that these observations can, without resort to a gateway effect, explain the strong observed associations between marijuana and hard-drug initiation.

Simply stated, there are many people who have a propensity for drug use, and where they start is not a simple, “one drug leads to another” explanation for drug abuse.

One factor that continually seems to be missed in all this is the legal status of marijuana. It’s classification as a Schedule 1 Narcotic makes selling marijuana profitable, and someone willing to sell drugs is not going to be too particular about which drugs they sell to make money.

By keeping marijuana illegal, and lumping it together with truly harmful drugs like heroin, we drive users to interact with illicit drug dealers, who are more often than not interested in making money. Period. “Hey, if you like weed, you’ll love this.”

That isn’t going to happen at a legal dispensary.

And don’t get me started on the dangers of prescription drugs like Oxycontin, which is basically synthetic heroin. Far too many people get hooked on hard drugs when their prescription runs out. When a physician refuses to refill a prescription for Oxycontin, $7 – $10 stamp bags of heroin are far more affordable than $30 – $50 Oxys. 

Changing the legal status of marijuana in states like Colorado has proven to actually reduce the use of hard drugs like heroin, because people are no longer forced to interact with criminals who may not have their best interests at heart in order to obtain marijuana.

So, enough with the “Gateway Drug” argument. There is absolutely no empirical evidence proving marijuana use leads to hard drug use, any more than eating chocolate, smoking cigarettes or drinking beer does. In fact, according to the government, the vast majority of marijuana users do not use hard drugs at all.

That hardly sounds like a “Gateway Drug” to me.

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