The gateway drug theory is one that has been used to argue that the use of certain “milder” drugs, like alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana, increases the likelihood that people — especially teens — will then be at greater risk for taking “heavier” drugs, like heroin or cocaine. Though the gateway drug theory is popular and there may be some correlation between early use of drugs like marijuana and harder drugs, the correlation is not simple, and the theory is in dispute. Studies by a number of reputable agencies show that use of alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana may not cause more serious drug use.
Despite holes in the theory, a parent who finds their child using one of the so-called milder drugs still has every right to be concerned. Even if this child never progresses to using harder drugs, the toxicity of especially alcohol and tobacco are well understood. In some cases this drug use might lead to heavier drug use, and even on its own it still poses a danger.
Some of the key studies investigating gateway drug theory show conflicting results. The American Psychiatric Association published a 2006 study, the result of 12 years of research, which followed boys who at onset of the study were 10-12 years old. The study evaluated over 200 boys and came to the conclusion that using gateway drugs was not a reliable predictor for later drug use of heavy drugs.
To make matters more confusing, a contrasting study done in Australia shows opposite results. It concluded from a sampling of nearly 2000 14-15 year olds that those who used marijuana were over ten times as likely to use harder drugs later on. The larger sampling here may win the day and prove the gateway drug theory.
Other interesting work has been done on the nature of the opiates in marijuana, which may dull the senses and make people more likely to use harder drugs to achieve the same high. One such study on rats found that rats dosed with marijuana, and then were given access to heroin, took on average more heroin than did rats that hadn’t used marijuana first. Some scientists say it’s impossible for this theory to be applied to humans.
A British study financed by the RAND Corporation and published in 2002 concludes that use of gateway drugs cannot be a reliable predictor for later hard drug use, and that scientists should evaluate other factors besides marijuana use to explain the prevalence of using hard drugs. There is something to this theory, because it’s important to take into account that some people begin with harder drugs and have never used alcohol or marijuana. Further, the gateway drug theory that smoking causes drug use may in fact be the reverse. Drug use may cause smoking.
The gateway drug theory has been used to explain why people progress from milder to harder drugs, but it does little to solve the issue of why teens must use any drugs to begin with. Studying the operant conditions for any drug use may be more valuable than studying how use of one drug may lead to another; especially since the gateway drug theory is now a matter of argument and debate. If we truly want teens and adults to not use drugs, studies that outline the emotional, social, economic, and physical conditions under which drug use of any kind is more likely to occur may be more relevant. Results from such work might help to blueprint more accurate ways to help people avoid drug use.