Ah, yes, the infamous postulation that cannabis is a conniving gateway to hard drug abuse. The cannabis community has long disregarded this idea as myth. But opponents to cannabis profess that weed sucks users into the dangerous world of illicit drug use. So, who’s right?
The Gateway Hypothesis
According to a study in the journal of Preventive Medicine Reports, the “gateway hypothesis” suggests that “an adolescent’s early experimentation with alcohol or tobacco or cannabis escalates to more addictive illicit drugs later in adulthood.”
The U.S. government and its War on Drugs has framed cannabis as a gateway drug. However, researchers have never found a direct connection between cannabis, and subsequent substance abuse and addiction.
In other words, while it may be true that some cannabis users find themselves experimenting with other substances, there is simply no evidence that cannabis alone is the reason for their intrigue in harder drugs.
Correlation vs. Causation
It all comes down to a case of correlation vs. causation.
The classic example of this fallacy is that ice cream sales and car thefts have a strong correlation. That’s because when ice cream sales go up, so do car thefts. However, this does not mean that ice cream turns people into car thieves. Instead, the reason for the correlation is that both ice cream sales and car thefts go up in the summer. That’s when it is warmer outside and the crime rates go up. Thus, there is no direct link between ice cream sales and car thefts.
A correlation between early cannabis use and harder substance abuse can be demonstrated. However that is not enough to substantiate the claim of causation. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.”
So, it may be true that most hard substance abusers started with cannabis. However it is not true that most cannabis users go on to use harder substances.
The Drug Policy Alliance posits that because cannabis is the most commonly used and widely available illicit drug in the country, it makes sense that most hard substance users started with cannabis. Furthermore, people who have a propensity to try drugs are more likely to graduate from cannabis to harder substances than people who don’t use cannabis. Though, it is not because of their cannabis use, but instead, because of their attraction to drugs that causes them to try other substances.
Predisposition to Substance Use
Genetic predisposition accounts for more than 50% of a person’s likelihood to become addicted to drugs, according to the American Psychological Association. The other half depends on their social networks, and whether or not they have a history of trauma or mental illness.
The fusion of genetics and one’s environment is extremely important when discussing addiction. The disease of addiction is the result of the way these factors interact with one another.
In other words cannabis may be one factor — but it is not the sole cause of addiction.
Cannabis as an Exit Drug
On the flip side, cannabis has been proposed as an exit drug. An exit drug is one that helps people wean off of other substances like opiates or alcohol.
There is not much scientific research to support this idea, either. But multiple studies have shown that doctors write less opioid prescriptions in states with legal medical cannabis. In fact, one study from December 2020 found that the number of registered medical cannabis consumers with active opioid prescriptions dropped by 17% over a period of six months.
Cannabis might be the solution to the opioid crisis after all. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that non-opioid pain relievers are more effective than opioids in treating most types of chronic pain.
There is evidence that cannabis can also be used to treat spasticity (tight or stiff muscles) and nausea from chemotherapy. It also has therapeutic effects on degenerative neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, according to a report by the National Academies of Sciences.
But beyond its medicinal properties, the reason cannabis is an exit drug for so many is because it is much less harmful and addictive than other substances. For example, in a 2019 study in the Harm Reduction Journal, almost 705 of 2,000 surveyed participants reported that they had replaced prescription drugs with cannabis. About 44% stopped drinking alcohol; 31% stopped smoking tobacco; and 26% ended their illicit drug abuse.
Considering the power of addiction, those numbers are rather significant.
So, to bring it back around to the question, “Is cannabis a gateway drug?” The answer, according to research, is no. In fact, the science suggests that cannabis is actually an exit drug, and perhaps, the most powerful weapon we have to fight against the War on Drugs.