Does Marijuana Lead to the Use of Other Drugs?

For Some It Does, For Others Maybe Not

Man Lighting Marijuana Cigarette
Is Marijuana Really a Gateway Drug?. © Getty Images

Question: Does Marijuana Lead to the Use of Other Drugs?

Answer: Many young people who smoke marijuana never progress to using other drugs, but some do go on to abuse other illegal substances. Research shows that the vast majority of high school students who do use other drugs used marijuana first.

The National Institute for Drug Abuse has three theories why some marijuana smokers go on to other drugs while some do not:

  • When people begin smoking marijuana while their young brains are still developing (into their early 20s) it can change the reward system of their brains, which can make other drugs more appealing. Animal research found that early exposure to marijuana makes using opiate drugs more pleasurable.
  • Those who use marijuana are more likely to be around others who use and sell other drugs, increasing the temptation to try those drugs.
  • Young people who are at high risk for becoming substance abusers may use marijuana first because it is easier to get than other drugs. The same is true for cigarettes and alcohol.

Higher Risk When Combined With Other Gateway Drugs

When people talk about gateway drugs, marijuana is usually mentioned along with the other two major ones, alcohol, and tobacco. There is research that shows that when children use all three, the risk of progressing to harder drugs increases immensely.

A study by The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia (CASA) found that children who used marijuana, alcohol and tobacco were 266 times more likely to use cocaine than children who used none of the gateway drugs.

Children who used all three of the gateway drugs were 77 times more likely to end up using cocaine than children who used only one of them.

The same is true for adults. Adults who use alcohol, tobacco and marijuana were 323 times more likely to use cocaine that adults who used none of the gateway drugs. Adults who used all three were 104 times more likely to use cocaine than adults who used only one gateway drug.

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Sources:

Columbia University Record. "National Study Shows "Gateway" Drugs Lead to Cocaine Use." Office of Communications and Public Affairs November 1994

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Marijuana." DrugFacts Updated January 2014

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Want to Know More? - Some FAQs about Marijuana." Marijuana: Facts for Teens Updated October 2013

National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Marijuana." Research Report Series Updated July 2012

The Partnership at DrugFree.org. "Marijuana." Drug Guide. Accessed April 2014.

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