Scientists Debunk Theory That Pot Is a Gateway Drug

Data from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that 60 percent of pot users go on to try other drugs, which might seem to prove the “gateway” theory, except that 88 percent of drug users started with alcohol, according to several studies reported in The Atlantic…

“Gateway” is a problematic term in that marijuana use is not a tipping point but rather part of a process; this fact underscores a significant flaw of the gateway theory. Scientists tell us that correlation does not imply causation.

“Marijuana isn’t a ‘gateway’ to harder drugs in the same way that ordering an appetizer isn’t a ‘gateway’ to an entree: One comes before the other, but you’re eating both because you’re already at the restaurant,” The Atlantic explained.

Miriam Boeri, a sociology professor at Bentley University does not believe one type of drug use leads to another. In an article for The Conversation, she pointed out that poverty, mental illness and peer group pressure are all much stronger predictors of drug use.

Scientist Denise Kandel of Columbia University, who coined the term “gateway drug,” told NPR last week that she recently published a new paper on the topic, which shows nicotine is biologically the most potent gateway of all. When rodents were primed with nicotine, then given cocaine, they liked the cocaine much more…

The people behind Treatment4Addiction, a website for finding addiction treatment, recently parsed the data from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health to see which drugs people tried right before and after they started using a given narcotic. (Click the boxes at the left to highlight a drug. The diagonal lines leading up to it show the percentage of people who tried a given substance immediately before that drug. The lines to the right show the drugs they tried right after.)

This chart has a section for painkillers, which I thought was very interesting.  It showed that alcohol and marijuana had the highest percentage of use before someone took painkillers.  But that 34% didn’t try any drugs “right after taking painkillers.”  And that only 1% tried heroin “right after taking painkillers.”  It suggests to me that if a patient’s pain is controlled, there’s no need to try other drugs.

It’s too bad we can only compare some drugs, not all.  If you think about the first drug you were ever given, was it Tylenol?  Sugar?  Processed food and chemicals?

It’s fun data to play around with (who are these insane hipsters who snorted cocaine before they ever drank?), but the creators caution that it’s important not to read too much into it: “These are snapshots of people of different ages, and some of them may go on to try other drugs in the future,” they note.

What’s more, these lines aren’t gateways, per se. They’re more like pathways, revealing the trajectories drug users tend to take as they bounce from one substance to another (or, in many cases, simply stick with their drug of choice)…

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