Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

One of the most popular misconceptions about cannabis—and one that anti-cannabis activists have been touting for years—is that using it will lead to a lifetime of drug addiction and criminal activity. For decades we’ve been taught that using cannabis will lead to a life of substance abuse and crime.

Reefer Madness 1936

Reefer Madness 1936

From the Reefer Madness propaganda in the 1930s to Nixon’s War on Drugs to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, anti-marijuana groups have done everything in their power to convince us that cannabis opens the door for harder, actually dangerous drugs.

This, to put it simply, is a bunch of nonsense.

Studies Speak for Themselves

Let’s take a look at the evidence.

In 1944, Former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia launched a ground-breaking investigation of cannabis use in Manhattan. The LaGuardia Committee Report was the first in-depth study on the personal and societal effects of cannabis. The incognito “marijuana squad” of police officers inspected subways, public restrooms and pool halls. They observed various channels of marijuana distribution and user behavior. The study concluded that marijuana use did not lead to any kind of physical or medical addiction, and that the users they observed were not more likely to abuse substances like heroin or cocaine. The study also noted that there was no effort by marijuana smokers to create a black market for heroin or cocaine (another common myth at the time).

Not surprisingly, these results were not what the newly-appointed commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics wanted to hear, so the study was largely buried. Standards for research have changed since the 1940s, but studies throughout the years have continued to arrive at similar conclusions.

A 2015 study found that although nearly 50-percent of lifetime cannabis users try other illicit drugs at some point, cannabis alone is not the reason why. Demographics, social context and pre-existing mental illness indicate whether a person is more or less likely to move from cannabis to illicit drugs.

A more recent study dug deeper into the various decision-making factors. The study found that the gateway theory does not explain a person’s choice to use drugs early on and again later in life. It also doesn’t explain the choice to switch between different kinds of drugs. An individual’s underlying social context, such as community social norms or family dynamic, give a better understanding of why someone might choose to use substances beyond cannabis – substances like opioids.

Opioids: An Actual Gateway Drug

Multiple studies and reports have proven that opioids—the ever-popular family of drugs that gave the world morphine and its meaner, nastier cousin, heroin—are highly addictive. The National Institute on Drug Abuse pooled data between 2002 and 2012. Findings showed that 80-percent of heroin-users tried prescription opioids before heroin. The opioids were either personally prescribed or received from family or friends.

The saturation of opioid prescriptions in the U.S. is staggering. In 2016, pharmaceutical companies distributed 6.2 billion hydrocodone pills and 5 billion oxycodone tablets nationwide. People who no longer have access to prescription opioids often turn to illicit drugs for relief.

Many experts believe that cannabis can help reverse the opioid crisis by alleviating symptoms of addiction and preventing opioid misuse. Various medications, like methadone or buprenorphine, are used to ease opioid withdrawal symptoms and prevent relapse. However, these medications are not risk-free and may even be ineffective for some patients. Cannabis is a safe alternative that can lessen the risk of opioid misuse, relapse and overdose.

In other words, not only does cannabis use not lead to a lifetime of drug addiction, cannabis can actually help those who abuse opioids beat their addiction.

What Does This All Mean?

Repeat after us: Cannabis is not a gateway drug.

Studies have repeatedly shown that there is no evidence that marijuana use directly causes further abuse of other substances. Many people even believe that it’s marijuana prohibition itself that can lead to illegal substance abuse, because if people could purchase it legally they would never be introduced to the black market and the dangerous substances found there.

Despite the popularity of the gateway theory, it’s pretty clear that this particular marijuana myth is nothing more than a scary story born out of a propaganda campaign and passed down by generations of anti-cannabis activists.

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