Last updated: October 19, 2020
So, does marijuana use lead to use of stronger illegal drugs? The gateway theory seems reasonable enough at first. Most people who take hard drugs start with soft ones. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that among people who have tried illicit drugs, about two-thirds began with marijuana. Hardly anyone jumps straight in at the deep end: less than 1% of drug users reported that their first-ever outing was with heroin or cocaine.
But then, it’s also a fact that most heroin addicts had previously tried chocolate. Establishing a causal link is the tricky bit: Did using marijuana cause the person to then use other drugs?
There are two aspects of the gateway effect. One is biological: lab rats exposed to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, show greater sensitivity when later exposed to other drugs, such as morphine. Alcohol and nicotine have the same “cross-sensitizing” effect. In other words, rats (and perhaps people) that have tried one mind-altering substance seem to get more of a kick out of others.
The other aspect is social: smoking marijuana, a banned substance, gets people in with the wrong crowd, making them more likely to flout other laws. Breaking one taboo makes it easier to break another. And knowing a marijuana dealer certainly makes it simpler to acquire other substances: drug pushers are notorious for giving free samples of new drugs to their customers.
There are other “gateways” to the use of harder drugs. Factors that have nothing to do with substances. All of the following are, like marijuana, linked to drug use and may have a stronger causal relationship than marijuana:
- Poverty and poor social environment is a gateway to drugs, according to much research.
- Association with people who use hard drugs is a better predictor of harder drug use.
- Certain mental illnesses, such as antisocial personality and bipolar disorder, are found to predispose some people to use drugs.
So, is marijuana a gateway to other more dangerous drugs? I think the answer is Yes. The biological link is pretty well established. If you prime your brain for drug use, then if you try other drugs, they will have a greater impact and you are more likely to use them again. The social link is also noteworthy. Drug use is an escape from current circumstances, whether poverty, mental illness, social standing or emotional pain. I would say that if you find yourself considering marijuana use, stop for a second and consider why you are doing so. Marijuana is not going to fix any problems in your life, and since it is illegal and comes with other negative effects, using marijuana is more likely than not to add to your problems. The more problems you have, the more pressure you will have to find escape, which could lead to using more dangerous drugs.
As corny as it sounds, the best approach is still to just say no to drugs. Look for better solutions and better solace from your troubles.