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For many years a debate has raged between opponents and advocates of marijuana over whether weed can act as a 'gateway' drug. While many advocates argue that marijuana is safe (citing statistics that show marijuana use to be safer than alcohol use) and does not lead to more dangerous habits, opponents claim that marijuana use can lead to the use of more dangerous substances in the future.
The gateway drug theory states that illicit drugs such as marijuana (which is mild and relatively harmless in comparison with harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine) prime the brain of the user to encourage a pattern of increased addiction which will eventually lead users to experiment with more dangerous substances.
The theory is centered on the supposition that gateway drugs act on a pharmacological level, altering brain chemistry in users to make it more likely that they will fall into more damaging addictive habits.
However, research suggests that there is no such pharmacological gateway effect with marijuana use. A 2002 study by the RAND Corporation produced results which suggested that there was no gateway effect present in patterns of marijuana use and escalation to harder drugs.
That isn't to say that marijuana use doesn't increase the risk that users will progress onto more harmful substances, but simply that THC, the psychoactive ingredient of marijuana, does not have a chemical effect on the brain that increases the user's risk of progressing to harder drugs.
However, while marijuana may not offer a pharmacological gateway effect there is certainly evidence to suggest that marijuana use may expose users to social factors that increase the likelihood that they will graduate to the use of more harmful substances.
1. Peer Pressure
Marijuana is one of the most readily available and most widely used illicit drugs in the US, with 4% of adults reporting that they use it at least once a month. As marijuana use is so widespread and more culturally acceptable than harder drugs it is comparatively easy for younger people to access.
When young people gain access to drugs during the early stages of maturity they may be less well-equipped to resist peer pressure and more susceptible to suggestion than older users. As marijuana users are statistically more likely to move in social groups with users of harder drugs there is a risk that they may be exposed to hard drugs more often than non-users.
2. General Susceptibility
It may also be the case that there is little direct correlation between marijuana and hard drug use, but that people who are tempted to use marijuana may be pre-disposed to risky behaviors that may result in an escalation to harder drugs.
The statistics seem to support this theory. Studies have shown that people who smoke marijuana are 104 times more likely to experiment with cocaine than those who have never tried the drug.
The loved ones of regular marijuana users will understandably be concerned about the risk that marijuana may act as a stepping stone towards the use of more harmful substances. Unfortunately there are no easy answers that can solve the problem and prevent people from experimenting with illicit drugs.
However, education about the harmful effects of illegal substances can help minimize the risk of experimentation. Knowledge is power, and young users who understand the true dangers of drug abuse are less susceptible to the temptation to experiment.
The prevalence and widespread availability of marijuana makes it almost impossible to prevent young people from experimenting with the drug, but by educating youth about the risks of harder drugs it may be possible to freeze the progression.
Perhaps the most important factor in preventing the gateway effect is in separating the market for marijuana and harder drugs. Since 1976, the Dutch have enforced a policy of non-enforcement of marijuana possession laws, allowing coffee shops to sell small amounts legally. The aim was to give marijuana users the opportunity to purchase drugs in a safe, controlled environment that was disconnected from the market for harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
While there are moral questions that arise from such a policy, the approach achieved its goals. In the years following the introduction of the policy cocaine and heroin use decreased while the use of marijuana itself leveled out at the same rate as neighboring European countries.
The Dutch experiment shows that the gateway effect of marijuana can be avoided, and while it may not be advisable to institute the same policy elsewhere it raises interesting questions about the risks of marijuana as a stepping stone to more hazardous substance abuse.
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