The Gateway Drug Phenomenon

If you ask people who survived a fentanyl overdose about their journey into drugs, they will invariably mention starting with marijuana at a young age, even 12-13. Marijuana, nicotine, and alcohol are well-known gateway drugs.

The International Academy on the Science and Impact of Cannabis has a medical library translated for a common understanding of the many harms of cannabis or marijuana.

Drug abuse literature and the public press periodically embrace or push back against the “Gateway” phenomenon of drugs like marijuana. The theory behind the notion of a “Gateway” effect has certainly been recognized by parents and addiction treatment professionals since at least the early 1980s.

To understand the gateway effect, it is important to also understand adolescent brain development. While the appetite areas of the brain (essentially the limbic system) develop in the early teen years, the judgment part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) often lags until the early to mid-twenties. Thus, there is a lag between pleasure responses and the modulation of such choices. Think of it as a powerful engine during adolescence that only has an accelerator and minimal braking ability. Essentially, early drug use “primes the pump” for subsequent addiction.

If we then add ease of access to the drug and frequency of exposure, tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana can be referred to as “gateway” drugs. All three substances are addictive. It is significant that the likelihood of addiction or problems with any of these drugs is dramatically greater if one initiates use in the early teens as compared to initiation in the twenties. This risk not only includes drugs but other stimulating behavior such as gambling, sex, reckless driving, etc. That is not to say, however, that later initiation of use eliminates the risk of addiction.

This brings up the third major risk, and that is availability. Powerful drugs like heroin or cocaine could be strong gateway drugs, but generally, their availability to young adolescents is limited. In populations where such drugs are available, they appear to be abused as much or even more than that classic “Gateway” drugs.

The takeaway message is this: young people must not be introduced to drugs, tobacco, or alcohol preferably at all, but certainly not prior to the ages in the mid-twenties. One might ask how this applies in today’s world, and the answer is simple. The legalization and medicalization of marijuana increase the availability of marijuana. The use of marijuana among teens is generally more prevalent in states that have such policies, and along with it, addiction, emotional difficulties, psychiatric complications, vehicular accidents, etc. Let’s help protect young people by reducing the availability of the gateway drug marijuana, as well as other gateway drugs.

For more information on Gateway drugs see:

Learn more about the risk of marijuana on the IASIC website.

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