The legalization of medical marijuana is often clouded by social, political, and even religious controversies that obscure the scientific facts that should go without debating. Anti-marijuana activists always denote marijuana as a ‘gateway’ drug for hard drug use and the vicious cycle of addiction. In fact, it is not marijuana but alcohol which is actually the ‘gateway’ for substance abuse addiction, including cocaine and heroin addiction.
Some research studies have pointed to marijuana as gateway drug to harder drug abuse, while other studies have questioned the reliability of the gateway theory.
The gateway theory has been proposed based on co-dependence of other drugs among cocaine and methamphetamine users who also use marijuana. These studies have implicated marijuana’s possible causal role that biologically sensitizes the drug users to try other drugs, and get them addicted to harder drugs.
If this notion is true, it doesn’t make sense for most of the addicts who never used marijuana. If we look into the reality, most marijuana users do not progress to hard drug use. In reality, alcohol and tobacco addiction can be a gateway to other drug use. One study has concluded that alcohol, and even tobacco dependence, can progress to cannabis dependence. Nonetheless, marijuana-only use is not linked with progression to other drug use.
So with this irrefutable evidence, you may get baffled as to why marijuana has been surrounded by controversy over the years? If we take a closer look into socio-political and scientific aspects, we are able to see that there are vested interests in keeping the myth of marijuana as a gateway drug alive.
What’s the Real Cause of Hard Drug Abuse and Misuse?
Upon looking into the scientific and socio-economic causes of hard drug use, no reliable or valid reasons are available to point to marijuana as a gateway to hard drug use. Nevertheless, several factors that act as ‘drug gateways’ come into the play. They include:
- Available research evidence has pointed out that poverty and poor social environment can act as a gateway to hard drug use.
- Having relationships or friendships with addicts and/or hard drug users increase the chances of becoming a user.
- In addition, presence of certain psychiatric disorders, including antisocial personality and bipolar disorder, can predispose the risk of developing addiction.
- Politico-legally, criminalization and prohibition are reported to be the main causes of gateways to harder drugs.
Most mainstream researchers have challenged and even disproved the gateway theory of marijuana. Based on the available literature, we are here to examine and dispel the gateway theory of cannabis, which is actually non-existent.
Let’s look into the evidence that dismisses the myth.
Way before the legalization of medical cannabis in a few U.S States, the scientific communities had dismissed the perception that marijuana can influence the brain to seek illicit drugs, such as cocaine and LSD. There is no conclusive evidence to demonstrate that marijuana use is causally linked, and acts as a gateway for substance abuse. Later, the RAND Corporation published another report that noted cannabis has no causal links to hard drug initiation and justified the scientists’ doubts about the gateway theory.
Benefits of Cannabis Therapy on Opioid Dependence or Addiction
Studies have shown that cannabis can improve treatment outcomes in opioid-dependent individuals who are treated on an outpatient basis. Similarly, in patients who were detoxifying, cannabinoid administration significantly reduced withdrawal symptoms in addicted individuals. Cannabinoid treated subjects were able to cope with their rehab treatment better, experienced normal sleep, less anxiety, and completed their rehab treatment with better success, as compared to those who were not treated with cannabinoids and did not do as well.
What I find interesting is this: the U.S. government statistics report has found increasing rates of heroin use among prescription opioid users. I see this finding as a self-contradictory move on the part of the government. If prescription opioid analgesics can act as a gateway for drug use that pave the way for substance abuse, what made the government/FDA legalize these drugs for medicinal use? If the FDA can give the green light for these prescription only opioid drugs, why not for medical marijuana?
A French study has reported that individuals who tried tobacco first were more likely to progress to cannabis, but not the vice versa. Even this benefit of cannabis has been acknowledged by the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse.
Several research studies have linked cannabis use and harder drug use and reported a correlation between the two. The fact is – scientifically, correlation does not mean that the correlating factor can play a causal role or causation.
In fact, a correlation can be either positive or negative, and most of the time a positive correlation don’t find a rational reason or causation.
The Gateway Theory – Not Applicable for Marijuana Anymore
The gateway theory has gained a lot of attention in the past two decades. The gateway theory explains the possible reason for progression from drug use to addiction based on the brain disease model, which describes changes in the brain.
To add fuel to anti-marijuana campaigning, a recent study has concluded that even a little cannabis use can cause exposure-dependent neural matrix alterations that possibly affect the brain reward systems in young people. Meaning, if a drug can influence brain reward pathways, it can predispose the risk of developing drug dependence, addiction, and the use of other drugs.
Here comes the truth…
Critical analysis of the above said study by independent researchers has pointed out several scientific deficits and statistical flaws. Similarly, another study that advocated the gateway theory has admitted the limitations of the study, particularly the fact that study subjects who were able to disprove the gateway effect were excluded from the study. We have piling evidence to show the flaws in the gateway theory.
There is no concrete evidence to show that marijuana has a gateway effect or it has causal influence over initiation of other drugs. Similar studies have concluded that the gateway theory and causal mechanisms are unclear.
What we should note is – most of these studies are being conducted by non-U.S. nationals or by pro-marijuana activist organizations within the U.S. that are promoting marijuana legalization. To counter these studies, addiction medicine professionals and addiction researchers in the U.S are busily working to prove the weakly-supported hypothesis claim that cannabis is a gateway drug for harder drugs. These studies are heavily funded by the government and pharmaceutical companies to ‘validate’ the gateway theory.
Addiction medicine experts are doing their best to keep the gateway theory alive, as most of their patients are marijuana users. They are able to flourish in this lucrative career as long as the myth of addiction as a disease remains, and as long as marijuana is presented as an addictive drug.
These studies mostly focus the gateway theory in youths to demonize marijuana use. Definitely, parents will get concerned by the results of a research study that elucidated cannabis’ effects on the brain. Most of the studies that supported the gateway theory showed changes in brain structure and loss of white matter in cannabis users, while the limitations and clinical significance are being questioned by independent research studies.
This is no less than a perpetuated scare tactic.
One study that was conducted compared Amsterdam and San Francisco, where cannabis was decriminalized and criminalized, at the time. The study concluded that criminalization did not curb marijuana use, while decriminalization did not increase cannabis use.
There is no available evidence to show that there is skyrocketing marijuana use among youths where marijuana has been decriminalized. No studies have reported this within states that legalized marijuana. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics has found no evidence of increased cannabis use by youths in marijuana legalized states.
The reality is this: it is alcohol, not marijuana, that is a gateway drug.
One study noted that substance use screening should target alcohol use. A study published in 2008 indicated that alcohol predominantly represented the gateway drug that lead to the use of other drugs including tobacco, hard drugs, and marijuana. This study reported that school students who used alcohol were more likely to use marijuana in later stages, but not the other way around. These results were mirrored by another study.
Anyone with a clear mind can begin to see that the gateway theory is scientifically invalid when it comes to marijuana use.
Marijuana is an ‘Exit’ Drug for Hard Drugs
Contrary to the gateway drug hypothesis, studies are showing that cannabis is actually beneficial for the treatment of opiate addicts. Surprisingly, a study reported that cannabis use can control, prevent and even help end hard drug use.
In marijuana legalized states, remarkable reduction in opiate overdose deaths and a decrease in drug-related crime rates were reported. After legalization of marijuana in certain U.S. states, the use of hard drugs, particularly cocaine use, has dramatically gone down. Even most of the substance abusers have substituted marijuana in place of alcohol and prescription drugs, like opioid analgesics. Although these studies offer substantial findings, these studies are largely, intentionally ignored.
Based on these facts, it is clear that marijuana is NOT a gateway drug but an EXIT drug to substance abuse and alcoholism. So marijuana users and their kin can rest assured about these issues.
I believe it’s high time to shred the gateway theory, and to start researching the therapeutic benefits of marijuana to treat substance abuse and addiction.