Is Marijuana Still Considered a Gateway Drug?

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It has long been argued that marijuana is a gateway drug, meaning that those who use the drug are more likely to move on to harder substances like cocaine or heroin. However, is it really true that this substance, which is now legal for adults 21 and older in Colorado and Washington, is really the start of something worse? Or is this just a myth that won’t go away?

At The River Source, all of our patients started on their path to addiction with something, whether it was marijuana or prescription painkillers. While not everyone who experiments with marijuana becomes addicted to harder drugs, it’s also unlikely that a young teen will stop there. Once a teen starts experimenting with pot, it becomes more likely that they will become curious about other drugs, and depending on a variety of factors such as age, family life and personality disorders, this could start the pattern of abuse.

What the Research Says about Marijuana Use

Marijuana didn’t get its reputation for being a gateway drug for no reason. There is plenty of research to suggest that the substance is a stepping stone. Marijuana users are more likely to progress to harder drug use as opposed to non-users and almost all hard drug abusers start off with marijuana. In fact, those who use marijuana are 104 times more likely to use cocaine than someone who doesn’t smoke pot. You can see where marijuana would gain its reputation for being a gateway drug.

However, as we learn more about human behavior, researchers are finding more supportive evidence that it’s not marijuana that’s causing teens and young adults to move on to harder drugs, but underlying factors in our genetics or past experiences. These same factors are what lead people to experiment with pot in the first place.

Case Study: Jennifer’s Story

For instance, take Jennifer, a 19-year-old battling heroin addiction. Jennifer started experimenting with marijuana when she was 16. She was dealing with low self-esteem and was craving acceptance from her peers. Her parents were also going through a divorce at the time, so acceptance from her friends was even more important. Jennifer felt that if she started smoking pot, others would see her as being fun and daring, and she would let go of her “good girl” image.

After some time, Jennifer started getting the attention she wanted, but not in the best way. She was invited to parties, where she continued to push her limits by drinking too much and taking prescription medications. Even though she still smoked pot, the painkillers were taking over, and Jennifer began buying pills off other kids at school.

With these pills costing her a small fortune, an acquaintance offered another suggestion: heroin. Since the group had been buying marijuana off the dealer for years, he trusted them and saw that they expressed interest in something more. He introduced them to someone who sold heroin, and after that, Jennifer is hooked. When her parents stage an intervention, she confesses, “It all started with the pot.”

As Jennifer enters treatment for her addiction, it’s quickly uncovered that marijuana wasn’t what led her down this path. Instead, Jennifer was struggling with poor self esteem and had unresolved issues with her parents’ divorce. Whether it was smoking pot, drinking or taking pain pills, Jennifer was happier when her mood was altered. She also felt a need to keep up with her friends. Fortunately, addressing the real issues was far more constructive than putting blame on a drug itself.

Looking Deeper into the Real Problem

Now, we’re certainly not making light of marijuana. It’s a very real drug that has very real consequences. Sadly, many people don’t just stop with pot, and they do move on to harder drugs. But like Jennifer’s story, there are certain factors that are responsible for forming an addiction, and we must look beyond the simple myth that marijuana is the problem. The River Source staff believes it’s important for families to know that just because they keep their loved ones away from marijuana doesn’t mean a drug addiction or other harmful behavior will be avoided.

We must instead look deeper as to why some people feel the need to take drugs to have fun or be accepted by others. When kids start experimenting with marijuana, they tend to get bored and look for other ways to bring on the same effects. It’s only natural that when they hear that a friend has scored something else, they’ll want to try it.

Another factor to be aware of is that when getting marijuana, kids are also being exposed to another way of life. It’s very difficult for just anyone to get a hold of heroin or cocaine, but if they’ve been purchasing weed for quite some time, it’s much easier to be directed to a dealer selling harder stuff, as in the case with Jennifer and her friends.

So, should we stop calling marijuana a gateway drug? Maybe. But we should be certain that using marijuana is a gateway behavior, meaning that the behavior will probably evolve into something more. If you suspect a loved one is smoking pot, act quickly and utilize resources like family or individual counseling. If the problem is more severe, call The River Source at 1-888-549-3510.