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Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug to Harder Substances?

A man smoking marijuana.
Studies suggest marijuana could serve as a gateway drug, but there are other factors at play that lead people to use harder drugs.

Is marijuana a harmless “soft drug” or is it a gateway drug into harder, more illicit drug addiction? When you look at the 10 states across the country that have legalized marijuana so far, it might be easy to think, “It’s legal, so it must be safe enough to use.”

But when you consider legal drugs like alcohol and prescription painkillers, we know that isn’t always the case. We also know there’s a lot of different factors at play that can lead someone down the path of addiction.

So, is marijuana a gateway drug or not? In short, there isn’t a clear-cut yes or no answer. However, there’s a number of factors and considerations that can help you determine if marijuana will serve as a gateway drug for you or a loved one.

How Marijuana Affects the Brain

How do you feel when you eat your favorite dessert or receive a gift? You feel great, right? That’s because doing or receiving something rewarding triggers a release of dopamine in the region of your brain commonly known as the “pleasure center”.

Drugs like marijuana do the same thing, only much faster and more intense.

When you or a loved one smoke marijuana, it releases a surge of dopamine in this pleasure center of the brain. Drugs like this go a step further and affect the brain’s learning and memory systems, overloading these systems and making your brain think it wants the drug to feel good. As you continue to ingest marijuana, your brain builds up a tolerance and makes you believe you need it in order to function normally.

Today, an estimated 4 million people suffer from marijuana dependence, which can lead to addiction. And, according to the gateway drug theory, this could also lead to use of harder drugs.

The Gateway Drug Theory

The gateway drug theory is the idea that people follow a linear progression when it comes to drug use, starting with socially acceptable drugs and working their way towards the harder and life-threatening ones.

For marijuana, the theory suggests that people who use marijuana regularly will eventually start using drugs like cocaine or heroin. This would occur for two reasons:

  • First, experimentation with marijuana would increase the desire to experiment with other drugs
  • Second, the social group you smoke marijuana with would provide you with opportunities to try other drugs.

While research like the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders found some evidence that adults who used marijuana were more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder, other research hasn’t been able to draw the same conclusions.

Factors that Can Lead to Addiction

While experts can’t say for sure that marijuana is a gateway drug, there are genetic and environmental factors that could make marijuana a gateway drug for some people:

  • Genetics: According to the American Psychological Association, genetics have been connected to quicker and more intense reactions to drugs and the tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors. If you or a loved one exhibit signs of an addictive personality, this could leave you vulnerable to gateway drugs.
  • Trauma and Mental Illness: Many people try to dull the pain or discomfort associated with trauma or a co-occurring disorder with drugs like marijuana. It’s important to seek help immediately for traumatic experiences or mental illness instead of turning to addictive drugs.
  • Peer Dynamics: Your family and friend relationships can also influence your likelihood to abuse different types of drugs. While this doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to abuse drugs, being on the lookout for triggers like relationship tension and peer pressure (especially if you or a loved one is already prone to addictive tendencies) can help prevent drug use.
    These factors on their own don’t immediately result in drug abuse. However, this knowledge and awareness can help you take the steps necessary to limit marijuana dependence and harder drug use.

Get Holistic, Evidence-Based Treatment at The Raleigh House

Addiction doesn’t have to define your story and who you are. At The Raleigh House, we offer holistic and evidence-based treatment to help you overcome your drug addiction and any co-occurring disorders you may also be struggling with.

Fill out our form or contact us today to learn more about our treatment programs.

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