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Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: Facts vs. Policy

As more states make some level of marijuana possession and use legal, the question still remains, “Is marijuana a gateway to other drug use?” Ongoing research suggests that at some level, marijuana use does increase the likelihood of experimentation with other, stronger drugs in some people, but not all.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a study from the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related disorders found that adults who used marijuana during the first part of the study were more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder within three years than adults who did not use marijuana. And people who were already struggling with an alcohol use disorder were at higher risk of their addiction becoming worse.1

marijuana leaf illustrationThe anti-drug lobbyists who insist that marijuana is a gateway drug refer to the results of a 2012 Yale research study that demonstrated that in both men and women 18 to 25, the use of marijuana was linked with an increased chance of future prescription drug abuse. In males in this age group, alcohol and cigarettes also had the same association, but this was not so for the females.

The research team used data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health with approximately 55,000 subjects across a three-year period. Roughly 12 percent of the sample admitted to behavior consistent with prescription drug abuse.2

Those individuals had the following drug history:
  • Alcohol use: 57 percent
  • Cigarette use: 56 percent
  • Marijuana use: 34 percent

When all the statistics were calculated, the Yale researchers found that in both sexes the individuals who had used marijuana in the past were 2.5 times as likely to abuse prescription medications than their counterparts without a history of cannabis use.


Is it the Drug or the Individual?

A gateway drug, such as alcohol or marijuana, is considered one whose use is thought to lead to the use of and dependence on a harder drug (as cocaine or heroin). Many people take from this that a gateway drug has the power to cause anyone who takes it to use of a harder drug. But is it the drug or by the individual who takes it? In other words, does the drug cause people to make poor choices for themselves, or are certain people primed by genetics, their environment, or both to make unhealthy decisions?

According to Robert L. DuPont, president of the Institute for Behavior and Health and the first director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the evidence that early drug use primes the brain for enhanced later responses to other drugs.

“Marijuana use is positively correlated with alcohol use and cigarette use, as well as illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. This does not mean that everyone who uses marijuana will transition to using heroin or other drugs, but it does mean that people who use marijuana also consume more, not less, legal and illegal drugs than do people who do not use marijuana.
People who are addicted to marijuana are three times more likely to be addicted to heroin.”3

The bottom line, people who have a genetic predisposition to addiction are more likely to become addicted to marijuana and move on to harder drugs. Many people who try marijuana or use it for a time will not move on to other, harder drugs, but the evidence that marijuana is a gateway drug for many drug users is clear.

Finding Help for Addiction

There is no test for someone’s likelihood of developing an addiction. It is impossible to know who will become dependent and who will just have stories from their “crazy younger years.” Therefore, most experts agree it’s best not to use marijuana so the ability to stop never becomes an issue.

If you or a loved one struggles with drug or alcohol addiction, we are here to help. Call our toll-free number, 424-387-3118 24 hours a day to speak to an admissions coordinator about available treatment options.

1 National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?NIDA, June 2018.

2 Cuda, Amanda. “Yale Study: Marijuana May Really Be Gateway Drug.Connecticut Post, Connecticut Post, 23 Aug. 2012.