Is marijuana a gateway drug?
Some research suggests that marijuana use is likely to precede use of other licit and illicit substances46 and the development of addiction to other substances. For instance, a study using longitudinal data from the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders found that adults who reported marijuana use during the first wave of the survey were more likely than adults who did not use marijuana to develop an alcohol use disorder within 3 years; people who used marijuana and already had an alcohol use disorder at the outset were at greater risk of their alcohol use disorder worsening.47 Marijuana use is also linked to other substance use disorders including nicotine addiction.
Early exposure to cannabinoids in adolescent rodents decreases the reactivity of brain dopamine reward centers later in adulthood.48 To the extent that these findings generalize to humans, this could help explain the increased vulnerability for addiction to other substances of misuse later in life that most epidemiological studies have reported for people who begin marijuana use early in life.49 It is also consistent with animal experiments showing THC’s ability to “prime” the brain for enhanced responses to other drugs.50 For example, rats previously administered THC show heightened behavioral response not only when further exposed to THC but also when exposed to other drugs such as morphine—a phenomenon called cross-sensitization.51
These findings are consistent with the idea of marijuana as a “gateway drug.” However, the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, “harder” substances. Also, cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs52 and are, like marijuana, also typically used before a person progresses to other, more harmful substances.
It is important to note that other factors besides biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in a person’s risk for drug use. An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs. Further research is needed to explore this question.