Is Cannabis a Gateway Drug?

A 2014 NIDA study was written by acting director Dr Volkow. She had this to say among several other bullet points in her conclusions:

  1. Marijuana addiction increases the risk for using other illicit drugs.

Is cannabis a gateway drug? Number 4 (from her list) suggests that it opens the pathway for many hapless experimenters who eventually succumb to its charms like sirens luring you to a rocky shore.

What evidence do we have that supports the theory that cannabis smoking leads to the use of “harder” drugs such as heroin or cocaine? The so-called gateway theory. This idea has taken on a life of its own. Nearly anyone you talk to will chortle something on cannabis use as a gateway drug. What are the facts?

Time magazine published an article in 2010 entitled: Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: The Myth That Will Not Die. By Maia Szalavitz.

She quotes the Institute of Medicine’s publication from 1999 in a report commissioned by Congress to look at the possible dangers of medical marijuana.

Patterns in progression of drug use from adolescence to adulthood are strikingly regular. Because it is the most widely used illicit drug, marijuana is predictably the first illicit drug most people encounter. Not surprisingly, most users of other illicit drugs have used marijuana first. In fact, most drug users begin with alcohol and nicotine before marijuana — usually before they are of legal age.

In the sense that marijuana use typically precedes rather than follows initiation of other illicit drug use, it is indeed a “gateway” drug. But because underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede marijuana use, marijuana is not the most common, and is rarely the first, “gateway” to illicit drug use. There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.

Statistically, there are many more people who have tried cannabis than cocaine or heroin. For example, the federal government’s survey on drug use showed that in 2009, 2.3 million people reported trying cannabis — compared with 617,000 who tried cocaine and 180,000 who tried heroin. [ref]( 07/15/2015[/ref] If marijuana was a true gateway you would expect to see far greater percentage of cannabis users going on to try heroin or cocaine.


One theory is that cannabis smokers who develop good relations with their dealer may be exposed to harder drugs from the trust that develops between them. Dealers are more apt to sell only to those they know especially when it comes to hard drugs like coke and heroin since the penalties are far greater. In this way, marijuana users can be exposed to harder drugs.

The Dutch coffeeshop experience was in part, based on abolishing the rapport consumers had with their dealers by eliminating dealers altogether. A 2010 Rand report verified that evidence existed to show a “weakened gateway” in the Netherlands. Pot smoking among their youth has decreased as well. They concluded that the data clearly challenge any claim that the Dutch have strengthened the gateway to hard drug use.[ref]IBID[/ref]

Another theory is taste. Those that like to alter their consciousness may prefer various platforms to try out. Not being satisfied with simply smoking cannabis they may experiment with harder drugs. This is analogous to fitness buffs who like to try many differing forms and styles of exercise. Or music aficionados who are not satisfied with only listening to Sonny and Cher’s Billboard top 10 smash hit “The Beat Goes On,” from their 1967 album In Case You’re In Love. However, it doesn’t mean a teen’s fondness for Sonny and Cher becomes a gateway to the Sex Pistols.