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Are Gateway Drugs Real?

With some states making marijuana legal, there has been some revived public discussion of whether marijuana is a gateway drug. The implication is that legalized marijuana may lead to more widespread abuse of other drugs. In some quarters, people reflexively say, “Marijuana is a gateway drug,” as if it were a well established fact. Actually, it’s far from clear whether using marijuana leads to using other drugs.

There is some indication that early use of marijuana may change your dopamine response, in effect priming your brain for addiction. That is, like with other drugs, habitual use of marijuana can down regulate dopamine production, especially in younger brains. Then, later, when someone who has chronically low dopamine from marijuana use tries more potent drugs, the effect is amplified. This has been studied in rats and may also be true of humans.

The problem with these studies, and with biological explanations of addiction in general, is that there are many factors that influence whether someone develops an addiction. For example, early marijuana use is likely associated with other risk factors for addiction–family members or friends who use marijuana and possibly other drugs; depression, anxiety and other mental health issues; or just a greater willingness to experiment. It’s difficult to say someone definitely used other drugs because she used marijuana. It could be that she wanted drugs and marijuana is just the easiest to get.

Another issue is that in most states anyone selling you marijuana may want to sell you other drugs too. If you go to buy beer at the store, there isn’t cocaine or heroin in the beer aisle, or anywhere in the store, but the guy you buy marijuana from might offer you something else. It’s hardly fair to blame the drug when the real problem may be the dealer trying for the upsell. It may turn out that marijuana has less of a gateway effect in states where it’s sold legally.

Of course, if you’re in recovery, any drug is a gateway drug. Marijuana may be only one of a constellation of factors leading to addiction, but if you have struggled with addiction, then you likely do have several of the necessary risk factors. As a result, no psychoactive substance, with the possible exception of SSRIs, is safe. Addiction is a behavior pattern with a biological component, and early marijuana use may be part of the pattern.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, Gardens Wellness Center can help you detox safely and decide on a treatment strategy. Call us today at 844-325-9168 or email us at info@tgwcdetox.com to learn more.