Lies Your Health Teacher Told You: Marijuana Is a ‘Gateway’ Drug

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Historically, the story America has told its youth about marijuana revolves around the idea of the substance as a “gateway drug.” The idea behind the gateway effect, as it were, is pretty self-explanatory. Essentially, the notion is that marijuana, though not in and of itself particularly harmful, will, inevitably, lead to the use of harder drugs — such as cocaine or heroin — with much more harmful consequences.

But data from several studies on youth behavior and substance abuse are beginning to suggest what pot smokers the world over already guessed at: Namely that the gateway effect is a bunch of hooey. A Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study, as well as studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the CDC, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment all indicate that while marijuana use has risen among American teenagers, the use of other drugs — such as heroin, cocaine, tobacco, and even alcohol — have all declined, challenging the idea that marijuana use is a gateway to other, more harmful substances.

The most recent data on illicit drug use come from NIDA. The agency’s study, which was updated in 2014, notes that “use of inhalants, amphetamines, cocaine and hallucinogens all receded” in the past year, though it adds that “cannabis use diverged from the otherwise desirable trends seen in the survey,” noting that “daily cannabis use was similarly high compared to past years, reported by 6.5 percent of seniors, 3.5 percent of sophomores and 1.1 percent of 8th graders.”

A similar study conducted by the CDC a year previous notes slightly higher numbers, reporting, “nationwide 23.4 percent of students had used marijuana one or more times during the 30 days before the survey,” as well as finding that a “significant linear increase” in the number of students admitted to using marijuana at least once in the past 30 days between the years 1991 and 2013.

Another study, conducted by the state of Colorado, addresses concerns many legislators have made regarding the potential for an increase in marijuana use by teenagers in states where the drug is made legal for medical purposes. The result? It seems that despite the fears of those who oppose the legalization of marijuana, use of the drug by Colorado’s teenagers hasn’t budged and actually saw a slight decrease between 2011 and 2013.

Despite what might seem like a revolutionary breakthrough in the research surrounding drug use among young people, the truth is that the gateway effect has been disproven for quite some time; researchers at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences debunked the theory in 1999.

That year, the institute reported “there is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.” Further, earlier studies, such as the LaGuardia Report, a study commissioned by former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and conducted by researchers at the New York Academy of Medicine, have been suggesting that the gateway effect doesn’t hold water as far back as 1944.

While recent trends in youth behavior may prove to be the final nail in the coffin for the ever-enduring gateway effect myth, researchers do note that increasing rates of marijuana use among teenagers are still troubling. Dr. Volkow, a researcher with NIDA, notes that “students are reporting less perception of risk from marijuana even as scientific evidence mounts that cannabis can cause serious harm.” In particular, Volkow points to another NIDA-funded study “in which regular cannabis use beginning in one’s teens and persisting well into adulthood was associated with a decrement of about 8 points in IQ at age 38.”

Studies across the board have found that students generally don’t perceive marijuana to pose a significant risk. According to its most recent data, the CDC, for instance, notes that “among sophomores and seniors, 20.6 and 26.8 percent, respectively, saw occasional cannabis use as very risky – the lowest percentages in decades.”

Regardless, what seems clear from recent data is that despite naysayers’ fears, it seems states don’t have nearly as much to fear from marijuana legalization as was originally thought. Marijuana use among teenagers may kill off a worrying amount of brain cells with prolonged use, yes, but by no means does the drug automatically lead to an increase in the use of more harmful substances. In the future, perhaps the focus of new drug education efforts could turn instead to the real consequences of marijuana use, rather than the imagined ones.

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