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Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

Marijuana a Gateway Drug

Some say that alcohol is a gateway drug. The substance is legal and easily accessible to young people even though it is not legally sold to them until after the age of 21. Many clients in recovery report that alcohol – not marijuana – was their first introduction to substance abuse that eventually developed into an addiction to a range of substances.

In recent years, however, with the legalization of marijuana for medical use, and now, for recreational use in a few states as well, many are returning to the hypothesis that marijuana may again be a gateway drug – and one recent study supports that notion.

A study out of Columbia University Medical Center published in JAMA Psychiatry found that people who smoke marijuana may be more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol as well as other drugs as compared to those who avoid marijuana use.

Dr. Mark Olfson of Columbia University Medical Center was lead researcher on the study. He says: “This new finding raises the possibility that the recent rise in marijuana use may be contributing to the coincident rise in serious harms related to narcotics and other drugs of abuse.”


The Study


Close to 35,000 adults were included in the study and interviewed once and then again three yeas later. About 1,300 reported using marijuana in the first interview. At the second interview, about 66 percent of people who reported marijuana use had developed a substance use disorder as compared to about 20 percent of the non-marijuana-using participants. The rates of substance abuse increased among those who reported using marijuana once or more per month.

It is important to note that the study found a link and not necessarily a cause and effect, meaning that while rates of past marijuana use were a shared trait among a high percentage of people struggling with substance use disorders, it does not indicate that use of marijuana will necessarily cause dependence on other substances.

Says Olfson: “In the ongoing national debate concerning whether to legalize recreational marijuana, the public and legislators should take into consideration the potential for marijuana use to increase the risk of developing alcohol abuse and other serious drug problems.”

Legalization and Addiction: Is There a Connection?

The big question is whether or not greater access to marijuana through legalization of the drug will ultimately lead to higher rates of marijuana addiction and higher rates of substance use disorders overall. The costs of addiction are great, no matter what the drug of choice – mental and physical costs to the individual who develops addiction, emotional and financial costs to the family, and financial costs to the community. If there is a risk that health and financial problems will increase as a result of marijuana legalization, is it worth it? Do the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks – especially when it comes to recreational use of the drug?

Other Issues Associated with Marijuana Legalization

If the increased risk of lifelong substance use and addiction disorders, and associated loss of life, is not enough of a deterrent, there are a number of other concerns with legalizing a substance for recreational use that is known to cause harm. These include:

  • Lack of academic progress among students: Though the legalization of marijuana does not appear to bring increased access to the drug among those who are underage so far, there has been a solid shift in perspective among young people about the dangers associated with marijuana use. Many kids no longer view the drug as harmful, and for this reason, may experiment or use the substance more readily. Earlier use of any addictive substance is linked to higher rates of adulthood substance use disorders, and the opportunities at school and in the community that are lost along the way are incalculable.
  • Drugged driving: Driving while under the influence of any drug can be devastating, not only to the driver but to that person’s passengers and others on the road, including pedestrians. In the states and surrounding states where marijuana is legal for medical use, the rates of driving under the influence of marijuana have increased. The problem is that many believe that if the substance is medically useful, it is inherently safe to use in any context. The fact is that marijuana uses slows response time, limits peripheral vision, and makes it more difficult to be a competent and safe driver on the road.
  • Higher rates of emergency room admissions: There has been a steadily increasing rate of admissions to the emergency room for treatment of medical emergencies related to marijuana use. There have even been a number of deaths related to the use of marijuana edibles, a form of the drug that has high levels of concentrated THC and is thus very potent.
  • Physical and mental health problems: Depending on the method of ingestion, marijuana users may be at risk for respiratory illnesses or gastrointestinal issues. Additionally, memory problems that can hinder young people at school can become serious issues in adulthood if marijuana use is heavy and frequent. Some studies have linked heavy marijuana use during young adult years with structural brain changes that look similar to the changes wrought by schizophrenia.

Whether or not marijuana is gateway drug is irrelevant if the drug itself is creating negative consequences in your life. If you would like to stop using marijuana but are having a hard time transitioning into sobriety, contact us for more information about treatment services that make sense for you.

About The Contributor
The editorial staff of Recovery First is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed thousands... Read More