Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?
Updated: Jul 15
You've undoubtedly heard the old saying that marijuana is a gateway drug. Moreover, that statement is usually accepted as fact without much pushback — even though scientific research proves otherwise.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of how science views the marijuana gateway drug theory, let's take a step back and clear a few concepts up. First, we will dig deeper into gateway drugs, discuss why people think marijuana is a gateway drug, and then explain what the science says.
What is a gateway drug?
A gateway drug is a drug that is believed to lead to broader experimentation in other, harder drugs, including addictive substances. You can easily visualize the meaning behind gateway drugs by imagining that the first drug you consume opens the door to others.
The widely-held belief about gateway drugs is that, while perhaps not addictive in themselves, they increase the odds of using other severe substances that are highly addictive. For example, some studies have shown that alcohol use leads to substance abuse in other drugs, including tobacco, cocaine, and heroin.
However, the gateway drug concept is flawed from several perspectives, especially given marijuana consumption.
Problems with the gateway drug theory
The gateway drug concept seems simple enough on the surface: trying certain drugs leads to higher chances of experimenting with others, thus increasing the odds of addiction. This simple correlation feels sensible at first because we're used to seeing if A, then B reasoning.
But, there is a glaring problem with using correlation thinking to prove the gateway drug theory. There has never been definitive proof for certain substances, such as marijuana, that trying them leads to using other drugs. Therefore, one could quickly call water a gateway drug because people who use addictive drugs also drink water.
Therein lies the problem with using correlation to determine whether marijuana is a gateway drug. Any common denominator between heavy-drug users, including substances such as clear water, can be used to support a gateway drug allegation.
What are gateway drugs? A few examples
So, if marijuana isn't a gateway drug, are there examples of substances that are gateway drugs? Remember, a gateway drug is a substance that theoretically increases a person's odds of trying harder drugs and becoming addicted.
People tend to wonder if mushrooms are a gateway drug when in reality, an actual gateway drug is legal and sold almost everywhere. If you guessed alcohol, you are correct!
Is alcohol a gateway drug? Simply put, there is strong evidence to say yes. The reason alcohol is a gateway drug comes down to availability, cultural acceptance, and its ability to create substance abuse patterns.
Similarly, tobacco is also a noteworthy gateway drug for the same reasons. Nicotine in tobacco is highly addictive, creating a pattern of dependence that potentially leads to users replicating their reliance on tobacco by using harder drugs.
In contrast, mushrooms and marijuana have no addictive qualities. They are typically not the first drugs people try — alcohol and tobacco are usually the first.
So, is cannabis a gateway drug?
The entire gateway drug issue can feel pretty confusing. Alcohol and tobacco are not usually considered drugs by most people. While marijuana is almost always considered a drug, research proves it's far less harmful than liquor and cigarettes.
To confuse the matter even further, a gateway drug is usually considered the first drug a person tries and repeatedly uses. This first drug eventually leads the user to abuse other drugs down the line. But this is also the point that helps us clarify that marijuana is not a gateway drug.
Studies have shown that alcohol and tobacco are far more often the first drugs people try — and, what's more, they're incredibly addictive and habit-forming. That's why it's false to call marijuana a gateway drug when, in fact, alcohol and tobacco usually precede it in the typical use chain.
Origins of the marijuana gateway drug myth
As it turns out, marijuana is not a gateway drug. But that conflicts with a myth many of us have grown up with. Where did the tale about cannabis being a gateway drug begin in the first place?
The marijuana gateway drug myth primarily has its origins in the disastrous War on Drugs era. First taken up by US President Richard Nixon, then renewed by Ronald Reagan. The War on Drugs campaign disproportionately affected and incarcerated people of color by scheduling and prosecuting marijuana possession/consumption on the same level as harder drugs like heroin.
The origins of the myth that marijuana is a gateway drug stem from a misunderstanding of what Dr. Robert L. DuPont meant when he said cannabis is a gateway drug. In his book Getting Tough on Gateway Drugs, DuPont used an extremely small — and unscientific — conclusion about drug use from a tiny sample of adolescents.
He also clarified that alcohol and tobacco were gateway drugs. But because marijuana was illegal in all states at the time, the media, prosecutors, and pop culture latched on to cannabis rather than socially-accepted beer and cigarettes.
How the gateway drug definition is changing
Now that recreational cannabis is legal in nearly 20 states and medical cannabis is legal in just shy of 40 states, the perception of marijuana is changing quickly. More people have tried marijuana than before, including former presidents, governors, mayors, and champion athletes.
The time to reconsider whether marijuana leads to using other drugs is here. Even more importantly, as a society, we're finally beginning to recognize the prevalence of alcohol and tobacco abuse and their role in forming habitual misuse of drugs later on.