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Unpacking the Myth: Marijuana as a Gateway Drug

by Landmark Recovery

April 14, 2021
teens discussing marijuana as a gateway drug

Unpacking the Myth: Marijuana as a Gateway Drug

What do you think about marijuana? Gateway drug? Or harmless pastime?

Teachers, parents, and anti-drug PSAs have consistently reinforced the idea of marijuana as a gateway drug. The message seemed to be that consuming marijuana was a one-way trip down the slippery slope of drug abuse.

But is that really the case?

Marijuana: Gateway Drug of Choice For Youth

Today, we’re going to explore how marijuana can contribute to substance abuse disorders and dig a little deeper into the notion of marijuana as a gateway drug.

The phrase ‘gateway drug,’ especially as it pertains to cannabis, has a particular connotation. We’re led to believe that using marijuana is the gateway to more dangerous substance-use behaviors. Although marijuana is a ‘soft’ drug, it’s seen as the first rung on the ladder of addiction. People who indulge in weed-smoking may end up using ‘harder,’ more serious drugs like cocaine, heroin, or ecstasy.

It’s true; there is a correlation between cannabis use—especially by young adolescents—and more ‘hardcore’ drugs. But to say that smoking weed causes you to use other drugs grossly oversimplifies the issue.

The concept of the ‘gateway effect’ entered the national lexicon in 1984, during the Reagan presidency. This era is notorious for its renewed efforts in the War on Drugs, which involved a major crackdown on drug use. First Lady Nancy Reagan spearheaded an intensive ‘Just Say No’ campaign, trying to discourage kids from dabbling in drugs.

Marijuana As a Gateway Drug: Examining Underlying Issues

But here’s the problem: the ‘gateway effect’ is—and was—a flawed theory that glosses over situational complexity and nuance. While there is some truth to the idea behind it, you should take the notion itself with a grain of salt. It’s a bit like using the wrong math equation to get the right answer.

The Drug Policy Alliance says that “those who use drugs may have an underlying urge to do so that is not specific to any one drug.” So what does that mean? People who use drugs recreationally are, in fact, more likely to start with those that are readily available. That’s why teenagers most often begin experimenting with alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis. But that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll inevitably progress to cocaine, heroin, meth, or opioids.

But here’s what we do know: there are a handful of behavioral and developmental traits that may alert to potential problems in the future:

  • Genetic predisposition
  • Trauma and/or abuse
  • Unstable psychiatric symptoms and/or mental illness
  • Thrill-seeking and/or impulsive behaviors
  • Environmental exposures – community/neighborhood, parental influence, perceptions surrounding cannabis (‘safe’ vs. harmful)

Conclusion: Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

Smoking a joint on the weekends won’t make your kid become an addict. But if they’re already experiencing the traits or behaviors mentioned above, the same urges that led them to try cannabis may also lead them to experiment with other drugs.

You wanted to know the answer: should we be concerned about marijuana as a gateway drug? The answer is both yes and no. It very well could be—depending on the individual conditions of the person using it.

For more information about marijuana use and how it affects you and your loved ones, reach out to Landmark Recovery today

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.