Is Cannabis A Gateway Drug?

Cannabis has long been called a “gateway drug”. Is it fact or fiction? The debate may never be over, but we’re going to take a look at the facts, data and opinions of experts. Information contradicting the theory and supporting it continues to surface.

The Gateway Drug Theory

To put it simply, the gateway drug theory exists and indicates that use of one drug leads to the desire to try or use other, harsher drugs. It often starts with use of a mild substance and leads to interest in harder drugs. Many teens experiment with nicotine or alcohol before anything else. Now, this does not mean that the teen is going to use harsher drugs and become a drug addict, by any means – the theory merely indicates that the potential exists.

Stimulants stimulate dopamine production –which triggers the body’s reward system and pleasure response. When increased use of a stimulant like nicotine, alcohol and other substances becomes too little or doesn’t produce the same effect – a larger dose of that stimulant may be sought. Some may turn to a different type of stimulant – such as heroin, cocaine, meth and other harmful drugs.

Does this mean that every person that builds up a tolerance to a mild stimulant is going to try harsher drugs or become an addict? Absolutely not. Some people have addictive personalities and are more susceptible to substance abuse/addiction than others.

Cannabis has been grouped in with nicotine and alcohol as a “mild” drug.

A study in 2016 showed that teens tend to drink alcohol before trying cigarettes or cannabis. Teens are also exposed to caffeine – also a stimulant—long before other types of stimulants.

Access to Drugs and Alcohol

Access to drugs and alcohol haven’t ever really been an issue. Teens in high school have long had the “older friend” or cool sibling that would buy them a pack of cigarettes or 12-pack of beer. Access to drugs on school grounds exists virtually everywhere.

The fact of the matter is, when today’s parents were teens, they could get anything they wanted. Nothing has changed – today’s teens can still get anything they want… fairly easily.

Even if drug sniffing dogs and detection systems were present at schools every day – teens would still have access to illegal substances outside of school.

Recent Data

A recent study conducted by LiveStories completely debunks the “cannabis is a gateway drug” theory. LiveStories is a data analysis company that just looks at available civic data. The company recently looked at data from current cannabis-legal states.

The founder of LiveStories, Adnan Mahmud said, “We haven’t found any strong correlation that suggests increased marijuana use leads to increases in other substance abuse. We weren’t looking for causation. We were looking for a correlation. And we didn’t find that was the case.”

Data was taken specifically from Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington states – where cannabis is legal. This data was compared to national averages. The information for these specific states was sourced from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, as well as additional sources including the CDC, Bureau of Labor Statistics and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Their analysis was based upon data from multiple major sources.

Use of cannabis in legal states, such as Colorado, may be slightly higher than the national average, but use of harsher drugs is not. What this clearly says is – yes, teens may be using cannabis but it isn’t causing them to use or want to use those harsher drugs. Heroin and opioid-related deaths have actually decreased in Colorado and are below the national average.

This also hints that where cannabis is legal, people aren’t using as much of those harsh, dangerous drugs. Some don’t use those dangerous drugs at all. Social acceptance of cannabis is shifting – which may also aid in representing higher usage rates.

Mahmud also said, “The hypothesis was that if marijuana is truly a gateway drug, we’d see a spike in the use of other substances in addition to a spike in marijuana use. We should have seen spikes all over the place. But when we looked at the data, the corresponding spikes didn’t exist. And because of that, it led us to the conclusion that there isn’t a strong correlation between marijuana use and the use of other substances.”

Cannabis as an Exit Drug?

When someone ingests a drug, they’re seeking the effect of happiness or satisfaction. The brain may not make enough dopamine on its own to make a person feel happy, satisfied or fulfilled, so a substance is sought to force the effect.

This is known as activating the body’s natural reward system. Well, THC can also do that. Dopamine is known as the brain’s pleasure and reward chemical. Those experiencing mood and mental health disorders may also lack dopamine.

Cannabis, when used in small doses, can help to temporarily trigger dopamine activity. As with any substance, over use may end up producing the opposite effect. A break from cannabis will help reset the body allowing a small amount of cannabis to help trigger the reward pathway again.

So, how does this correlate to cannabis maybe being an exit drug? Those using harsh, life-threatening drugs need to feel that reward or happiness. They need that satisfaction. The more dangerous drug may be far cheaper than cannabis. It may take less to produce that effect. It may last longer. Whatever the reason –they’re seeking an effect.

The body becomes addicted to the effect. Some forms of rehab and detox don’t replace the drug’s effect with anything, which may be a reason for such a high relapse and relapse-death rate. Cannabinoids, like THC, are natural and work with the body – introducing THC while the body rids itself of chemicals may help an addict stop using their drug of choice. THC, of course, should be introduced in small amounts with an ample dose of CBD on board as well.

Closing Thoughts

So, is cannabis a gateway drug? Most likely not. This issue will be debated for decades to come but much of the recent data points to no – it’s not a gateway drug. It may, however, help addicts kick their drug of choice and opt for a more natural, non-lethal option that still makes them happy without damaging their brains and bodies.