Some correlation exists between marijuana use and later, harder drug use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse references studies where marijuana smokers first were more likely to develop habitual addiction—but to alcohol. Marijuana users that moved on to other drugs were more likely to move on to alcohol. Then they subsequently develop an addiction to that substance, moving on to harder substances from there.
However, marijuana itself doesn’t seem to have habit-forming properties. Nor does it lead to unhealthy habits or disorders in people who use it consistently and/or exclusively. High THC strains can cause symptoms such as dry mouth and eyes, hunger, paranoia, and anxiety. But these effects are temporary and mild. Compare this with the side effects of long-term alcohol use: You have brain disorders, cirrhosis, pancreatitis, physical and psychological dependence, coma, and death. Alcohol shares these symptoms with hard drug use.
So, is marijuana really the substance to blame for gateway drug use?
In 1936, the propaganda film Reefer Madness began making the rounds with American high schoolers, “teaching” them about the dangers of marijuana use. Coincidently, it released three years after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and prohibition in the United States. Reefer Madness warned Americans to beware the dangers of marijuana. It details how marijuana’s use causes a person to commit heinous crimes.
While critics generally regard this film as one of the worst ever made, it continued to influence people’s opinions on marijuana for decades to come. The movie aired as cautionary propaganda for nearly 40 years. And for nearly 40 more as a farce. Unfortunately, the film and other propaganda pieces like it instilled unfounded fear and apprehension in the public eye. Does cannabis deserve this bad rap?
The U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy says that “in the 1970s and 80s, the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, was at 3.5 percent.” While today, THC levels can reach as high as 25%. The danger posed by marijuana during the time that Reefer Madness was being screened (1930s-70s) was relatively non-existent.
The panic generated around marijuana seems to relate to the concerns around it as a gateway drug. Since THC levels are higher now, doesn’t that mean that Reefer Madness’ cautionary tales still have relevance today? Not exactly.
Alcohol vs. Marijuana: Gateway Drug Showdown
Compared with alcohol use, which remains consistently harmful and addictive, marijuana’s dangers seem inconsequential.
However, in addition to the warnings and the stigmatization, there are clearly more factors to consider than isolated substance use. Substances more readily available are ones that most substance users gravitate to. If an individual cannot locate a dealer for cannabis, it is less likely that the same individual will be able to locate a dealer with harder drugs. In the same scenario, alcohol is easily accessible not classified as an illicit drug.
Availability effects what substances youth first encounter. Given the wider availability of nicotine/tobacco and alcohol, these seem to be the true ‘gateway’ drugs. Marijuana being an illicit drug itself is relatively difficult to attain in states that have not legalized it for recreational or medical use. It is actually the incorrect target of the harshest criticisms that accompany the ‘gateway drug’ stigma.
The Reality of Cannabis as a Gateway Drug
Both marijuana users and drinkers are almost 100% more likely to try hard drugs than someone who has never tried drugs. However, correlation is not necessarily a cause. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences said that although marijuana can be considered a gateway drug for reasons such as those given above, “because underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede marijuana use, marijuana is not the most common. It is rarely the first, ‘gateway’ to illicit drug use.” In fact, a study of U.S. 12th graders conducted by T. Kirby and the American School Health Association, came to the following conclusion: “alcohol should receive primary attention in school-based substance abuse prevention programming, as the use of other substances could be impacted by delaying or preventing alcohol use.”
It seems like there is a dangerous, readily available, and addictive gateway drug that we need to pay attention to. Surprisingly, it is not marijuana.
Buying the (Cannabis) Farm
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), deaths related to overdoses from alcohol use led to approximately 88,000 deaths in the United States from 2006-2010. This statistic includes both from acute alcohol poisoning and those related to long-term use and dependence. In addition to a higher rate of death and other serious diseases, alcohol (and nicotine) can prime the brain for harder drugs and their effects. Marijuana does not have the same affect. Alcohol can also inhibit the brain’s ability to make quality decisions. This could lead users to try harder drugs if they are available.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), “no death from overdose of marijuana has been reported.” Ever. This fact is rarely mentioned when referencing marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance. It’s never mentioned when referring to it as an illicit drug or a gateway drug. There is a lot of hype that marijuana is not addictive. It can be. However, studies show one in nine marijuana users will become physically addicted. Unlike alcohol users, stoners do not adopt psychological addiction.
It appears that graduating from alcohol to marijuana (rather than the other way around) is actually better for you.
So, why the misinformation?
Misinformation causes all of the hype stigmatizing marijuana. Films like Reefer Madness and a constant stream of media demonization of cannabis-related crimes (possession, possession with intent to sell, etc.) and culture only serve to misinform the greater public and generate unfounded fears around the substance. While the dangers of alcohol are accurately advertised alongside the substance in sales, the dangers of marijuana, if any, are not.
Marijuana may still be a gateway drug, depending on how you define the term. However, incorrect information and stigmatization in popular culture give it an insidious reputation as THE gateway drug most substance abusers graduate from. Marijuana lacks the availability, addictiveness, and serious health risks that alcohol does. Alcohol truly deserves the title of “worst gateway drug.”