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Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

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Understanding the gateway process involves sequence (use of a gateway drug leading to use of hard drugs), association (increased likelihood of hard drug use in those who use marijuana), and, controversially, causation. Researchers have demonstrated that marijuana use occurs prior to use of harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin and that, relative to nonusers, marijuana users are considerably more likely to subsequently report use of hard drugs. However, the evidence for causation, or that marijuana use exerts a causal influence on the likelihood of using other illicit drugs, has been less clear (Agrawal & Lynsky, 2013).

Animal studies have shown that exposure to addictive substances like THC can change how the brain responds to other drugs, particularly as regards response-reward mechanisms that can signal addiction behaviors. This finding suggests that marijuana may potentially be a gateway drug for some users; however, it is important to note that factors other than these biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in determining a person’s further risk for drug use.

Trends in people’s use of marijuana leading to further drug use can also be explained by marijuana often being one of the more accessible substances, along with alcohol and tobacco (NIDA, 2017b).

According to Miech, Patrick, O’Malley, and Johnston (2017), since 2013, attending college has become a substantially stronger risk factor for marijuana use. Before 2013, adolescents in college who had never used marijuana by the 12th grade were 17% to 22% more likely to use marijuana in the past 12 months than were their age peers who were not in college. This higher relative risk steadily increased and more than doubled in the following years to 31% in 2013, 41% in 2014, and 51% in 2015 (Miech, et al., 2017). Academic leaders are beginning to consider interventions for marijuana use as they have for binge drinking and other lifestyle choices and behaviors that can affect education, socialization, and health.

There are some in the criminal justice field, for example, who now argue that the gateway drug theory is an, “unjustified oversimplification of the dynamics of drug use reflecting the interests of certain stakeholder rather than wise social policy” (Kleinig, 2015, p. 971). The drugs are a branch pattern of the issues of the tree and its roots. A lack of or poor parenting, living in the wrong neighborhood, the need to belong, lack of self-esteem, or whatever it is that makes a self-destructive dependence attractive is the actual “gateway.”

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