Most people who use or have used marijuana in the past already know that it doesn’t lead users down an inevitable path of harder drug use. However, the term is still applied as an argument against legalization.
There are many reasons for this, from misinformation to vested interests by those with something to gain from keeping the criminal status of the plant intact.
“The gateway theory argues that because heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine users often used marijuana before graduating to harder drugs, it must be a “gateway” to harder drug use. The theory implies that there is a causal mechanism that biologically sensitizes drug users, making them more willing to try—and more desirous of—harder drugs.”, according to this recent article.
Significant research has shown that there are a variety of reasons as to why a person would try harder drugs. Low income and the lack of a solid social structure play a major role in the decision to move on to something stronger, often as an escape from a painful reality. Additional factors include associating with people who already use harder drugs, and certain mental illnesses, like bipolar or antisocial personality disorder.
On one hand, it makes sense that most heroin and cocaine addicts started out smoking weed, just like most addicts who started with alcohol because it was generally easier to get. Interestingly, it turns out that most people who try marijuana leave it at that, and don’t move on to harder drugs, suggesting to some that marijuana is actually providing users with an experience which doesn’t need to be heightened with other, more dangerous substances.
Other research is just plain faulty. For instance, an often quoted study by neuroscientist, Dr. Jodi Gilman, reports that small amounts of marijuana affect the brain’s reward system, reasoning that this would somehow make users want to use more, harder drugs.
However, the Gilman study had plenty of flaws, such as, a lack of careful controls for alcohol and other drug use by participants whose brains were studied. Meanwhile, critics of Dr. Gilman’s research are ignored while the study continues to be cited in the news media.
In another study supporting the gateway theory, the authors clearly state that the study didn’t provide proof of marijuana as a gateway drug; it excluded older cocaine users who had never used marijuana. Therefore, those cases that could provide evidence of no gateway effect were completely left out of the final analysis.
“Meanwhile, in the United States, addiction researchers and addiction treatment professionals are heavily invested in the weakly supported claim that marijuana is a gateway to hard drugs. For decades, scientists who study addiction have received millions of dollars in government and pharmaceutical funding to perpetuate the gateway hypothesis. Many would lose their respected reputations (or continued funding) if a gateway mechanism is not a legitimate research goal.”, as stated by in this article by Newsweek.
Finally, people working in the profession of addiction treatment have a lot to gain by keeping the gateway theory alive and well. Since most treatment patients use marijuana, the idea that drug addiction is a physical disease and that marijuana is addictive is simple job security.
It’s time to move beyond the theory of marijuana as a gateway drug and start focusing on the real dangers to our youth.