Medical marijuana is a term that refers to the use of unprocessed or whole cannabis plants, or their primary extracts, to relieve various effects of diseases and disorders (Chu 121). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the United States has not licensed or accepted marijuana as a medicine. Various research on marijuana’s chemical composition (cannabinoids) has contributed to the FDA’s approval of certain prescriptions incorporating cannabinoid chemicals in pill form (Volkow 5). Since the marijuana plant contains chemicals that could be useful in treating a wide variety of conditions and ailments, others contend that it should be legalized for medicinal purposes (Volkow 6). On the other hand, those disagreeing with such views contend that medical marijuana is a gateway drug and therefore should be prohibited. The “gateway theory” suggests that marijuana or cannabis leads to the use of other hard drugs (Chu 123). This paper gives an argument in support of the idea of medical marijuana as a gateway drug.
Why Medical Marijuana is a Gateway Drug
According to Volkow (7), the use of marijuana has a positive correlation with the use of other substances such as cigarette and alcohol, as well as various illegal drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine. However, that does not imply that every individual who uses marijuana will eventually use heroin or other related drugs. Instead, it means that marijuana users also consume more of other illegal and legal drugs than individuals who do not use marijuana. According to research, marijuana addicts are about three times more likely to be heroin addicts (Volkow 8).
Additionally, marijuana legalization increases its availability and acceptability, which is dangerous for safety and public health since marijuana increases the likelihood of heroin use. An effective drug policy should be that which actively discourages the use of marijuana and other related drugs, especially among the youth (Chu 125). Marijuana legalization is highly likely to cause lasting adverse effects on future generations. Currently, alcohol and tobacco stand as the primary legalized drugs and the leading causes of various preventable diseases. Legalizing marijuana as a medicinal drug will, therefore, increase the national problem of drug abuse, including the expansion of the opioid epidemic (Chu 126).
Several research works suggest that the use of marijuana has a high likelihood of preceding the use of other illicit and licit substances, as well as the development of addiction to a broad range of other hard drugs. For instance, the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders used a longitudinal data in their study. According to their findings, adults who exhibited the use of marijuana within the first wave of the survey had more likelihood of developing an alcohol use disorder within three years than those who did not use pot (Lankenau and Iverson 167). In the same study, individuals who already had alcohol-related disorders at the outset and used marijuana were highly likely to worsen the conditions of their alcohol use disorders. Besides, the study linked marijuana use to other substance use disorders such as nicotine addiction (Lankenau and Iverson 168).
Another strong evidence that medical marijuana is a gateway drug comes from NDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse). According to NIDA report, early exposure of young rodents to cannabinoids decreases the reactivity of their brain dopamine reward centers during their adulthood. If such findings get generalized to humans, then the implication is that it reflects the human’s vulnerability for addition to other abusable substances, in later life, that several epidemiological surveys have reported for individuals engage in marijuana use in their early lives (Volkow 10). The NIDA report also cites marijuana’s purported ability to prime the brain for improved responses to other drugs through the “cross-sensitization” phenomenon. The NIDA findings are consistent with the idea or claim of marijuana as a “gateway drug” (Volkow 11).
Additionally, when drug addicts narrate their histories, most of them begin with stories relating to marijuana use. That, therefore, indicates a strong connection between the use of marijuana and the use of other drugs. According to recent research findings by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an individual who smokes pot is over 104 times more likely to be a cocaine user than a person who never tries cannabis (Chu 127). Besides, as early as 1999, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, in a report instructed by the U.S. Congress to investigate the potential dangers of medical marijuana, had published their findings regarding medical cannabis (Chu 128). The report stated that the patterns in drug use progression from adolescence to adulthood are amazingly regular. According to the report, since marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug, it is predictably the first unlawful drug encountered by most people. Unsurprisingly, most consumers of other illicit drugs have first engaged in marijuana use, the report stated. The findings of that report, therefore, support the idea that medical marijuana is a getaway drug (Chu 129).
Another perspective of marijuana as a gateway drug is its illegality. It is always hard for individuals who cannot even smoke cannabis to find heroine dealers. Sellers of hard drugs appear to be less trusting of new customers, partly because they face higher penalties (Lankenau and Iverson 171). However, if individuals prove themselves by regular purchase of marijuana, drug dealers will be willing to introduce such people to their harder lines of products id there is an expression of interest (Lankenau and Iverson 173).
According to a study by the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), most individuals who consume hard drugs are likely to have had the first encounter with marijuana before graduating to the use of harder drugs (Volkow 12). The National Academy of Medicine, therefore, argues that marijuana or cannabis is a gateway drug in the sense that the use of marijuana precedes the use of other illegal and harder drugs (Volkow 13).
Those who champion for the legalization of marijuana argue that medical marijuana is not a gateway drug and instead claim that several people have used cannabis and even made it a regular component of their lives without getting inspired to graduate to harder drugs or dangerous narcotics such as heroin and cocaine (Chu 135). In fact, most proponents of medical marijuana argue that cannabis is increasingly getting recognized as helping tool for addicts to withdraw from dangerous drugs. Additionally, those who support the legalization of marijuana claim that the potential of medical marijuana’s consideration as a gateway drug is primarily due to its prohibition. They argue that the prohibition forces cannabis users to acquire it through illegal means, usually from dealers with additional drugs to sell, as well as incentives to sell anything that can generate money (Chu 137). In such a scenario, proponents of marijuana legalization argue that the primary driving force for marijuana users’ graduation to harder narcotics are illegal marijuana dealers who also sell harder drugs. They, therefore, blame the idea of marijuana as a gateway drug on its prohibition and that the linkage between marijuana and dangerous narcotics will automatically fall away upon the legalization of marijuana (Chu 141).
Additionally, the supporters of marijuana legalization do not find any valid evidence that suggests the existence of a causal correlation between the use of medical marijuana and the use of harder narcotics. In fact, they argue that most people who smoke pot hardly progress to harder drugs (Lankenau and Iverson 175). However, in my view and according to a broad range of studies, marijuana remains the most popular, mostly used, and easily accessible illegal drug in today’s society. Therefore, individuals who use various less available drugs such as cocaine and heroin are highly likely to have had a previous encounter with marijuana, a behavior which is consistent with the idea of medical marijuana as a gateway drug.
Given the evidence reported by different studies, it appropriate to say that medical marijuana is a gateway drug. According to the gateway theory, marijuana qualifies as gateway drug since most users of various dangerous narcotics such as cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin usually use marijuana first, which makes it a gateway to such harder drugs. The gateway theory implies that there exists a causal mechanism or link that sensitizes drug users biologically, which makes them more desirous of and more willing to try harder drugs. Therefore, in my view, the gateway hypothesis holds, despite not making sense to individuals who use or support the legalization of marijuana.
Chu, Yu-Wei Luke. “Do Medical Marijuana Laws Increase Hard Drug Use?” SSRN Electronic Journal (2013): 121-134. Web.
Lankenau, Stephen, and Ellen Iverson. “Medical Marijuana: Stepping Stone or Protective Effect?” Drug and Alcohol Dependence 146 (2015): e167-e178. Web.
Volkow, Nora D. “Taking A Science-Informed Approach to Medical Marijuana.” Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly 27.17 (2015): 5-13. Web.