The Gateway Drug is Legal

image of a gate to represent marijuana as the gateway drugIt’s been more than thirty years since President Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs” campaign, an attempt to reduce illegal drug trade in the United States. We wonder what Mr. Nixon would think about marijuana now that it is legally accessible, medically or recreationally, in thirty states. Is marijuana still The Gateway Drug?

Changes in marijuana policies across the United States suggest that Americans are gaining acceptance for this drug, and some experts suggest that within the next generation, marijuana consumption will spread and previous apprehensions about the drug will normalize, consumers viewing marijuana in a similar social category to alcohol. With nationwide legalization, marijuana products and paraphernalia sales could even top alcohol sales. Big tobacco companies and prominent food and beverage companies are reported to be investing in the future of marijuana products and sales. With legalization progressing and cigarette sales declining, cashing in on the trend is probably a strong investment. But what does this mean for the health of Americans?

Reports from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggest that adults who consume other substances, including alcohol, are more likely to experience an increase in their use of nicotine and other drugs if they consume marijuana regularly. These studies may imply that marijuana is, in fact, still a gateway drug. However, “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances” (NIDA). Other substances, including tobacco and alcohol, are typically used before users move on to stronger substances.

There are many factors that play into the risk of substance dependency. Certain social, environmental, and biological influences increase the likelihood of addiction, but there is no concrete evidence that any specific substance is more likely to lead to harder drugs. In the same article quoted above, NIDA shared an alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis. “People who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved the marijuana plant as medicine, however it does recognize certain chemicals derived from the plant as medicinal. Some studies indicate evidence of remarkable healing properties for a range of illnesses and symptoms. However, accessibility plays a strong role in how Americans view recreational drug use and how they make choices about consumption. We don’t yet know what the impact of normalization of marijuana use through legalization will be.

There have not yet been enough clinical trials to determine the benefits and risks of marijuana use. Marijuana could prove to be less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. What science has determined so far is that, for those who are at risk of addiction, the use of recreational marijuana, as with any other mood-altering substance, including alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, can contribute to the likelihood of other substance use.

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