As recreational and medical marijuana race across the country like Ivy on steroids, a decades-old debate will inevitably rear its head anew: Is marijuana a gateway drug?
“Gateway Drug” Defined
DrugRehab.com defines a gateway drug as “a habit-forming drug that can lead to the use of other, more addictive, drugs.” This definition is the consensus of most – if not all – people with a dog in the fight. I don’t think anybody that smokes marijuana or even knows somebody that smokes marijuana would put up much of a fight about weed being habit-forming. Of course it is. However, there are two words that follow that all-inclusive phrase, “habit-forming drug”, that is at the heart of the debate: “can lead”.
These two words acknowledge that “it ain’t necessarily so.” I know people who have been smoking marijuana for more than fifty years who have never even entertained the thought of moving on to “harder” drugs. Conversely, nearly everyone that I know that has used “harder drugs” smoked weed first. That being said, according to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.”
Digging A Little Deeper
The Gateway Drug Theory is predicated on the assumption that people who use mood-altering substances progress through a series of stages beginning with legal and socially acceptable substances such as alcohol and nicotine, followed by illegal soft drugs, such as marijuana, and from there to illegal hard drugs, such as crack and heroin.
But, according to Psychology Today, a magazine that focuses on behavior and covers a range of topics, including addiction, there’s a lot more to it than that. The theory does not take into account some pretty important factors:
• neighborhood and community environment
• level of parental supervision
• unique characteristics of the individual, including their biology and life experiences
Simply put, the recreational marijuana smoker will not necessarily end up a crack head. Not necessarily. That means that there is a possibly that he/she could. Some definitely will. Some definitely won’t.
Based on the prevailing hypothesis, the majority won’t. But the number of people who will “graduate” to harder drugs will increase proportional to the number of people who will begin using – or increase their use of – marijuana as a result of the legalization of recreational and/or medical marijuana. This is a sobering thought. It demands that we take a closer look at the pros and cons of legalizing marijuana.
It is common knowledge these days that marijuana has some medical benefits. Many people don’t know just what those benefits are, but they are willing to concede the point. There are over one hundred chemical compounds (cannabinoids) in marijuana. The best known, by far, is CBD. Coming in at number two is THC. These are not only the best known of the cannabinoids, they produce most of the benefits. According to Dr. Peter Grinspoon, Harvard Medical School, these benefits include:
- eases the pain of multiple sclerosis
- eases nerve pain in general
- muscle relaxant
- relief of chronic pain
- manage nausea and weight loss
- treat glaucoma
- treat PTSD
- lessens Parkinson’s disease tremors
Wow. That is an impressive list of benefits. Granted, the research is ongoing, but Dr. Grinspoon categorizes this research as “highly promising.”
Even if you concede that marijuana is not necessarily a “gateway drug”, that does not mean that it is completely harmless and/or that its use does not have negative consequences. According to Adi Jaffe, Ph. D, who has treated dozens of individuals who struggle primarily with marijuana use, it has been shown to have other potential problems. He says that while intoxicated by marijuana, the following effects can be observed in some users:
- anxiety, paranoia and panic attacks
- increased probability of psychotic symptoms
- decreased reaction time
- increased probability of heart attack and stroke
- coordination problems (impairs driving)
- sexual dysfunction (mostly males)
Wow again. That is an equally impressive list of negative consequences. It is important to note that these consequences are not a given. In other words, these are “potential” problems; kind of like the small print at the bottom of the screen during prescription drug ads on TV. You know, the ones that warn you that your legs could grow together, your teeth could fall out, and you could lose control of all of your bodily functions.
Dr. Jaffe goes on to say that repeated use of marijuana over a longer period has been associated with longer-term problems that may include:
- lower IQ (especially when use starts early)
- poor school or work performance
- impaired ability to perform complex tasks
- lower life satisfaction
- relationship problems
- anti-social behavior (stealing, lying)
- financial difficulties and unemployment
Again, these consequences are not a given. It would be difficult – if not impossible – to quantify the number of people who have been smoking marijuana for years with no negative consequences, since it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. So, although research does support the positive effects of marijuana in treating some serious illnesses, the potentially harmful physical and psychological effects cannot be ignored.
The “A” Word
Is marijuana addictive? Depends on who you ask. The consensus among most addiction experts is that marijuana is addictive. However, many researchers, doctors, and the general public, beg to differ. Former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, who supports legalizing marijuana, in a CNN interview said: “Marijuana is not addictive, not physically addictive, anyway.”
The controversy between the two groups seems to be rooted in their definition of addiction. To many people, including the nation’s former top doctor apparently, addiction is characterized as the shaking junkie or alcoholic who can’t quit because the withdrawal symptoms are impossible to bear. This group will acknowledge that marijuana is “habit-forming,” but stop short of saying it is addictive.
However, American Addiction Centers define addiction as “compulsive use despite adverse effects.” By this definition, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), says about 1 in 10 marijuana users will become addicted. They assert that for people who begin using younger than 18, that number rises to 1 in 6. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that 9% of people who use marijuana will become dependent on it, and that number jumps to 17% when use begins as a teenager.
In the final analysis, I think it is safe to say that the preponderance of the evidence indicates that irresponsible use of marijuana can indeed lead to addiction.
What America Thinks
So, where does the country stand on the issue of legalization of marijuana for medical and/or recreational purposes? Well, according to the Pew Research Center, support has steadily increased over the past decade. The percentage of adults who oppose legalization has fallen from 52% in 2010 to 32% today.
An overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens feel that marijuana should be legal for medical and recreational use (59%), or that it should be legal only for medical use (32%). That’s a whopping 91% of Americans that believes it should be legal in some capacity. Only about 8% of us believe that it should be illegal in all circumstances.
Most Millennials (those born between 1981 and 1997), Generation X’ers (born between 1965 and 1980) and Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) say the use of marijuana should be legal. Members of the Silent Generation (born between 1928 and 1945) continue to be the least supportive of legalization: Only 35% favor legalizing marijuana, while 64% are opposed.
Use Among Baby Boomers
Okay, let’s take a look at us Baby Boomers. Sure, most of us believe marijuana should be legal, but how many of us are actually lighting up? Well, apparently quite a few and at an ever-increasing rate. According to data compiled by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, marijuana use in the 50+ population is growing faster than any age group. Granted, the number of users in this age group is comparatively small, but it has grown nearly 300% in the past decade and continues to grow. Nearly 10% of the population 50-64, and 2% of the population over 65 smoke marijuana for medical and/or recreational purposes.
More To Be Revealed
Many studies have documented the medicinal properties of marijuana, and the research goes on. However, most of these studies also acknowledge that additional research is needed to understand its effects on us older guys. It is a fact that we experience many changes that go along with getting older that increase our susceptibility to adverse effects from any drug. We must also be aware of how marijuana may interact with any other medications we are taking. The potential for negative effects of marijuana use among older adults goes far beyond abuse and dependence. Among the concerns are unhealthy diet, injuries (especially falls), and mental health issues. Long story short, if you are considering smoking marijuana for medical or recreational purposes – or if you smoke it and plan to continue to smoke it – check with your doctor.
The bottom line is marijuana has been approved for very limited use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They have approved it to treat anorexia-related weight-loss in AIDS patients, and nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy. That’s it.
But the good news is that we are learning more and more every day, and the use of medical marijuana and CBD-related products may soon be “just what the doctor ordered”. However, as it stands now, all of the benefits mentioned above are “promising,” and though many doctors and patients swear by them, they have yet to get the FDA stamp of approval.
Although most people who smoke marijuana don’t see it as such (especially us baby boomers, who grew up with it), marijuana is classified as a drug. In fact, it’s classified up there with the bad boys. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug. Schedule l drugs are defined as drugs with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Included in this category are:
According to DrugRehab.com, marijuana is generally described as a depressant with “stimulant and hallucinogenic properties.” The way an individual responds to marijuana depends on the person’s age, genetics and history of use. It also depends on the amount of THC in the weed. The effects can range from feelings of contentment to delusions. We’ve already discussed the potential medical benefits.
Not In The Clear Yet
Because of these potential medical benefits, marijuana probably won’t be classified as a Schedule l drug for much longer. A couple of months ago the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that will legalize marijuana on the federal level, which will remove it from Schedule l of the Controlled Substance Act. It is awaiting action from the Senate. As far as state legalization goes, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and 33 states have legalized it for medical use. BUT, it is still illegal everywhere on the federal level and since federal law supersedes state law, you can still get busted for possessing it.
There Will Be Consequences
So, to revisit the question in question, “Is marijuana a gateway drug?”, the consensus among the professionals is: not necessarily. But, there’s no getting around it; the inevitable result of our freedom to fire up at will is going to be more people who are addicted to “hard” drugs. It’s a numbers thing: The more that use it, the more that are likely to go on to harder drugs. This is not necessarily the weed’s fault. Whether or not a person moves on to harder drugs depends a lot on the individual and his or her environment.
This begs another question: Are we ready to accept the repercussions of legalized marijuana? Have we seriously thought about what those repercussions will be? Legalization of marijuana is sure to impact every facet of American life. Are we prepared to take the bitter with the sweet? What do you think? Share your thoughts with me.