Many arguments support the hypothesis that cannabis is a hazardous substance which only leads to further drug abuse. This is dubbed as the gateway theory.
If you read an article on this topic on a pro-cannabis website, they will of course side against the gateway theory, with some very persuasive arguments.
Other, more mainstream, publications tend to support this theory.
But what is the real truth: Is cannabis really a gateway drug?
As weed becomes more and more available worldwide, this could be reframed as that the gateway theory is more of a social issue than a real “addiction” problem.
Cannabis gateway drug theory
The term gateway drug is very simple to understand—gateway drug is a substance that ultimately leads one to experiment with more “advanced” and dangerous narcotics.
Gateway theory originally gained momentum during the cannabis prohibition era, and back then, people started claiming that mild drugs (like cannabis) make users more open to try out more potent substances.
However, early on in the prohibition, they were also saying that smoking cannabis will turn you into a crazed killer, so the theories originating from that period should be taken with a grain of salt.
A very large grain, as a matter of fact.
Arguments in favor of the gateway drug theory
Those agreeing with this hypothesis say that people who have issues with hard drugs have used cannabis prior to trying those heavier drugs, and subsequently developed an addiction.
Some state agencies like the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) often refer to a couple of studies in order to back up their views.
In a study published in 2004, scientists discovered that exposing “adolescent” rats to THC “decreases the reactivity of brain dopamine reward centers later in adulthood”. (1)
Also, NIDA and authors of similar papers enjoy supporting their arguments with this particular study, generalizing the results to humans, by saying that “this could help explain the increased vulnerability for addiction to other substances of misuse later in life that most epidemiological studies have reported for people who begin marijuana use early in life.” (2)
There’s one more thing in this study that the vocal opponents of legalization love to mention, and it’s a phenomenon called cross-sensitization.
Cross-sensitization is a process of transferring sensitization from one substance to a related substance, or in other words—one substance “prepares” the brain for an increased response to other similar substances.
In the previously mentioned study, the first substance that was given to rats was THC (the most abundant cannabinoid found in cannabis). The second substance that animals showed an intense behavioral response to was morphine. (3)
When you stop and think about it, it does makes sense to an extent. However, there is a solid counter-argument to be made here.
Yes, a lot of people with addictions to heavy narcotics had prior experiences with cannabis before trying these hard substances.
But not everyone who used cannabis moved onto hard drugs, nor did they develop an addiction problem.
And here’s the real issue with interpreting findings in this way:
Whenever researchers find that cannabis has potential for treating a condition or a disorder, everyone jumps to say that more research is needed to back up those positive findings.
But in this case, when one animal study shows that cannabis can lead to the misuse of other dangerous drugs, prohibitionists and politicians are sticking to this narrative without asking for any additional research.
Arguments against the gateway theory
Yes, pot is the most common and widely-available partially illicit substance.
It’s now considered partially illicit because at the moment there are a lot of countries which legalized its use, and even more decriminalized it.
Here are some interesting stats:
Although addiction to opioids, cocaine, heroin and other hard drugs is not something that should be taken lightly, especially since it’s a problem that keeps growing, the consumption of hard drugs isn’t nearly as common as the use of weed.
Some studies also mention that nicotine and alcohol have the same cross-sensitization effect, so this isn’t something unique to cannabis. (4)
Alcohol and tobacco, which are legal in practically every corner of the world, also prime the brain for a heightened response to other more or less similar substances.
In 2016, researchers from the University of Florida were trying to figure out which mind-altering substances teenagers typically try first. They examined the results of an annual national survey of teen drug use. (5)
It turns out that twelve-graders were least likely to start using cannabis before alcohol and tobacco.
To be precise, 54% of them first try alcohol, 32% first try tobacco and only 14% start off with cannabis. (6)
These numbers make it clear that the real gateway drug is in fact legal, socially acceptable and everywhere around us.
Think about how many people in the world drink alcohol. I bet the vast majority of adults had at least one alcoholic drink in their life and I don’t hear any prohibitionists freaking out about it as they do for cannabis.
I think we can all agree that addiction and drug abuse are very serious issues, and that we shouldn’t blame just cannabis for it.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I consider the gateway theory more of a social issue, rather than a medical or scientific one.
This leads me to conclude that prohibiting a certain substance only contributes to addiction.
Once you break the law and buy weed, the reluctance to buy another (harder) illegal substance can diminish. In a way, your moral values shift a bit.
This connects the young and impressionable buyers to the illegal market, and all of a sudden hard narcotics become available, sometimes even through the same dealer who sold them weed (this is often the case in Europe).
Cannabis prohibition increases crime, but when cannabis sales, production, and distribution are regulated, the crime rate diminishes.
So, is weed bad for you?
First of all, cannabis has an amazingly wide and immensely powerful medical effect.
States and countries where medical cannabis programs exist are treating their patients for a plethora of conditions, including anxiety, depression, epilepsy, pain, and many other diseases and disorders.
But this is a tricky question to answer. If you’re a responsible consumer there won’t be any serious consequences.
Cannabis isn’t nearly as addictive as heavy narcotics like alcohol, opioids, cocaine or heroin, etc. However, cannabis can cause dependency, which is considered less severe than a full-blown addiction.
Young people misuse cannabis the most, as they tend to overindulge in weed. This often makes them ignore the more important things in life.
Consuming large quantities of cannabis on a regular basis, especially “couch-locking” indica varieties makes a person feel lethargic and sluggish, and that’s definitely not good when you have a bunch of stuff to do.
Also, the psychoactivity caused by THC causes the mind “float away”, which isn’t really perfect when you need to focus on something.
In that respect, educating youth on responsible cannabis use should be a primary concern in countries where cannabis use is on the rise, like Canada and the US.
Cannabis as an “exit drug”
Some of you will probably be surprised to hear that cannabis is viewed by some experts as an “exit drug”, which helps a person escape their addiction, rather than triggering it.
With each passing day, we are seeing more proof that cannabis can help alleviate addictions and aid people in staying sober. Especially the high-CBD varieties.
Few studies point to cannabis as a solution to the opioid crisis, as the latter is a growing concern across North America.
One 2017 review emphasizes that after the legalization in Colorado the number of opioid and heroin-related deaths dropped by 20%. (7)
Also, according to the research conducted by the American Medical Association, states which legalized cannabis for recreational use now have 24.8% less opioid-related deaths than states where pot is still illegal. (8)
One interesting survey from 2017 presented a promising “substitution effect” of medical cannabis in battle with addiction in general. (9)
In that survey, dispensary customers from New England reported the following:
- 77% of them said they reduced their use of opioids use after they began using medical cannabis;
- 72% reported using fewer anti-anxiety medications;
- 66% noted the reduction of migraine medications;
- 65% reported reductions in sleep medications;
- 42% reported reductions in alcohol consumption;
- 38% reported reductions in antidepressants.
So, what’s the verdict?
It’s difficult to change the public opinion on cannabis because it was purposely distorted for decades, but things are definitely starting to look up.
Even though there are several studies that support the cannabis gateway theory, many other show that this is just not the case. Furthermore, the numbers from states that legalized cannabis are firmly pointing in a direction that cannabis reduces opioid addiction rates.
In my opinion, the most important thing when it comes to cannabis is to use it responsibly and avoiding indulging yourself too often.
Education and moderation is probably the best policy.
- Pistis M, Perra S, Pillolla G, Melis M, Muntoni AL, Gessa GL; Adolescent exposure to cannabinoids induces long-lasting changes in the response to drugs of abuse of rat midbrain dopamine neurons; Biological Psychiatry; 2004; 56(2):86-94
- Agrawal A, Neale MC, Prescott CA, Kendler KS; A twin study of early cannabis use and subsequent use and abuse/dependence of other illicit drugs; Psychological Medicine; 2004; 34(7):1227-1237
- Cadoni C, Pisanu A, Solinas M, Acquas E, Di Chiara G; Behavioural sensitization after repeated exposure to Delta 9-tetrahydrocannabinol and cross-sensitization with morphine; Psychopharmacology; 2001; 158(3):259-266
- Levine A, Huang Y, Drisaldi B, Griffin EA Jr, Pollak DD, Xu S, Yin D, Schaffran C, Kandel DB, Kandel ER; Molecular mechanism for a gateway drug: epigenetic changes initiated by nicotine prime gene expression by cocaine; Science Translational Medicine; November 2011; 3(107):107ra109
- Barry AE, King J, Sears C, Harville C, Bondoc I, Joseph K; Prioritizing Alcohol Prevention: Establishing Alcohol as the Gateway Drug and Linking Age of First Drink With Illicit Drug Use; The Journal of School Health; January 2016; 86(1):31-38
- Livingston MD, Barnett TE, Delcher C, Wagenaar AC; Recreational Cannabis Legalization and Opioid-Related Deaths in Colorado, 2000-2015; American Journal of Public Health; November 2017; 107(11):1827-1829
- Bachhuber MA, Saloner B, Cunningham CO, Barry CL; Medical cannabis laws and opioid analgesic overdose mortality in the United States, 1999-2010; JAMA Internal Medicine; October 2014; 174(10):1668-1673
- Piper BJ, DeKeuster RM, Beals ML, Cobb CM, Burchman CA, Perkinson L, Lynn ST, Nichols SD, Abess AT; Substitution of medical cannabis for pharmaceutical agents for pain, anxiety, and sleep; Journal of Psychopharmacology; May 2017; 31(5):569-575