The Gateway Theory: Why It’s Wrong

Marijuana users, ranging from those who have been using for the past 40 years to those who had drug related education more recently in health class (the D.A.R.E program anyone?), are likely familiar with this saying: ‘marijuana is a gateway drug’. A term popularized in the 1980’s, marijuana as a “gateway drug” refers to the idea that the use of marijuana will lead to the use of harder substances (i.e. cocaine, ecstasy, etc…). However, this is a politicized myth, not an actual fact, and as a theory it has been disproven a number of times. The spreading of this falsehood has come with unfortunate misconceptions about marijuana, and is possibly one of the many reasons why marijuana is still demonized. 

The Gateway Theory

The gateway theory is an observational theory that those who use harder drugs like cocaine, meth, heroine, and so on, started by using marijuana. The suggestion is that using marijuana, especially at a younger age, opens up neural pathways in the brain that cause people to develop a “taste” for drugs. This has often been touted as a scare tactic to have people believe that using marijuana once can open up a portal to a life of hard drug use. Realistically though, there is very little solid evidence that actually supports this claim, and though yes, there are individuals who use marijuana illegally while also using other drugs, there are plenty of individuals who use marijuana without ever trying other drugs, as well as individuals who use other drugs without ever having tried marijuana. 

Why It’s Wrong

The bottom line is that most leading experts (including the CDC) believe that the gateway theory is wrong, and that the vast majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use harder substances. One reasons many believe this to be wrong is that many users of illicit substances first started with tobacco and alcohol, before they tried marijuana. Additionally, in many areas even outside of the U.S. where marijuana is much less accessible, there is still apparent use of harder substances. Really, there isn’t nearly enough research and evidence to support the claim that marijuana is a gateway drug, and though it is used through both sides of politics to defend harsher marijuana laws, with what we know now, it just doesn’t hold up.

Today, marijuana is often viewed at as an exit drug, as opposed to a gateway drug. This is to say that marijuana has been used to help those struggling with other forms of addiction, most notably from opioids. We know that opioid addiction is not only a qualifying condition in Pennsylvania for medical marijuana, but it’s a statewide and even national epidemic that many people are struggling with. Now, many have also been able to find relief with medical marijuana. As opposed to being something that can lead to the use of harder substances, marijuana actually has the potential to help people who are struggling with addiction.

It’s time to retire this age old myth of marijuana being a gateway drug, as it is a part of a harmful system that stigmatizes certain groups of people for marijuana use, as well as contributing to the damage caused by the war on drugs. Let’s be clear, marijuana as a substance should absolutely be used responsibly, but instead of creating scare tactics to baselessly keep people away from it, let’s open up the conversation to what people should know about marijuana, and how it can help people. Let’s shed an honest light on marijuana so we can help more people find relief as well as take corrective actions to those who have been harmed by the war on drugs.

Disclaimer: These statements have not been reviewed for accuracy by the FDA. As always, seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider when considering trying a new treatment. Do not start or stop taking any medications without speaking to your doctor first. 


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