Is Cannabis a Gateway Drug?
If you were raised in the Canadian school system, you probably received some education about drugs as part of a physical education class sometime in high school. I have vivid memories of my ninth-grade gym teacher standing at the front of our class and telling us that marijuana was a gateway drug.
At that time, I was attending a school with just around 400 other people and we all knew that there was a just a small group of people that had started using drugs. The smokers would stand on the sidewalk at the front of the building, a sacred space known as “off school property”. They were socially isolated by choice, but also because of their early adoption of nihilistic principles – most of us had learned that smoking was bad for you, but these students were already taking regular smoke breaks during the school day, some having started with cigarettes as early as 8 years old.
My childhood best friend was one of these smokers – he was an extraverted, reward-seeking and charismatic young boy who loved attention and deeply needed to fit in, and I remember him rolling joints in our French class the same year as this story takes place, to my horror. I didn’t approve, but I distracted the teacher for his benefit anyways – we were still friends, after all.
When my gym teacher stood at the front of class and told us that smoking cannabis would turn us all into crystal meth users, he added a caveat that I think is still important. While it’s certainly the case that hard drug users are more likely to have used cannabis in the past, it isn’t necessarily the case that using cannabis makes you more likely to make the transition to hard drugs yourself. As the old axiom goes, correlation does not imply causation.
This is a classic example of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We’re currently dealing with an incredibly destructive opiate epidemic that’s resulted from many poor social controls. Doctors prescribe opiates all too readily for a variety of purposes, and these substances are highly addictive. Young people buy party drugs that are laced with fentanyl, and Afghanistan’s poppy production reached all-time highs this year, despite a heavy American military presence, implying that opiate exports are growing around the world – none of this is caused by marijuana.
In fact, cannabis is now seen as a solution to the opiate epidemic, an alternative medication that offers stress and anxiety reduction, and relief from depression, inflammation and chronic pain, among other benefits. The hope is that if Canadians have legal access to the benefits of cannabis, they might be less inclined to pursue prescription or street opiates for the medical applications they’re used for.
This is certainly a tricky time to try and determine how we should treat the potential for cannabis to lead to further drug use. We’ve come a long way from the days of reefer madness towards accepting cannabis for the powerful medicine that it really is, but it seems that we’ve done so without the adequate “cultural corrections” – we haven’t resolved any of the tension surrounding what’s true and what isn’t about the cannabis we love, we’ve just gotten to a place where it’s more widely accepted, and now more widely accessible.
Going back to my high school education, the belief at the time was in “Say No to Drugs” and abstinence-based drug education – tell the kids that if they try cannabis, they’ll end up strung out on heroin, and that will scare them straight. In the interim, it’s become clear that cannabis is a powerful medicine that can be used to treat a variety of conditions, ones that were previously treated with anti-neurotic or anti-psychotic meds that have been found more harmful.
What’s led to all this confusion is a history of misinformation about cannabis and other drugs. The cannabis plant was outlawed to avoid competition with the pulp and paper industry, the government told people that Mexicans were importing cannabis and selling it to blacks who would get high and turn into zombie-rapists. When people stopped believing that, we turned to “gateway drug” education and telling people that cannabis would turn them into meth addicts.
All of this to prevent people from buying a drug whose main effects are reduced stress and pain, and whose main side effects are hunger and laughter.
Meanwhile, we recommended all kinds of other medications that have been found completely unsafe. Opiates are highly addictive. Anti-psychotics and anti-neurotic medications are effective for many conditions, but emerging evidence suggests that these powerful substances that alter brain chemistry may have tragic consequences, including extreme suicidal and even homicidal ideation for folks trying to get off them.
If we’re using cannabis as an alternative to these death traps, maybe our concern about cannabis as a gateway drug was always misplaced. In view of that, it’s hard not to be skeptical when Prime Minister Trudeau says that cannabis legalization is being done to “protect our children”, because after decades of misinformation it isn’t totally clear what our children need to be protected from. Is it the gateway effect? Early drug dependency? The known risks of developing mental illness for adolescent males who use cannabis between ages 18 and 25?
If those things are the case, there are better things to protect kids from – things like having nobody to talk to, low self esteem, feeling like they don’t belong, or feeling like they need to destroy themselves to fit in.
My intuition about the gateway effect hasn’t changed since I was a 14-year-old kid sitting in health class – if you’re highly reward-seeking and a risk-taker, cannabis is one of the first opportunities you’ll have to do something risky, to venture into the unknown. If you leave yourself open to experiencing new things, you’ll probably try any drug that promises a novel experience without killing you – and that’s not always a bad thing.
If you’re someone who lives by the rules, you’ll probably never try any drugs without a prescription, and that isn’t a bad thing either.
What’s important is that we acknowledge the clinical benefits of cannabis and push forward an honest public discourse about the real risks of cannabis use. Now that cannabis is legal, it’s time to put decades of misinformation behind us and demand the truth from our government and institutions. Let’s use the best studies to understand the risks along with the benefits so we can keep making the most of the resources we have to improve our health outcomes and the lives of people we care about.