The ‘Gateway Drug’ is Alcohol, Not Marijuana

While it’s been embedded in many brains, and is often taught in our school system that marijuanna is a gateway drug, the next step toward using substances such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin or prescription opioids. While many may see marijuana this way,  is it the only substance guiding users down a dark and dangerous road?

Cannabis has become a rather popular plant, and there is a reported 182 million users as of 2017,  however it’s not the most common drug of choice, it often ranks in third place – behind alcohol and tobacco.

There is another substance. It’s one that can be highly addictive, have damaging irreversible side effects – and it’s completely legal.

A team of scientists at the University of Florida have found that the theory of a “gateway drug” is not linked to cannabis – but to alcohol.

With the consumption of alcohol your likelihood of smoking cannabis and tobacco is much higher. Drinking may even persuade users to try drugs such as cocaine. Anyone who has enjoyed a few nights out at a bar, pub or party can likely vouch for this, if not from their own behaviour – from the ones around them. This noted UF study found that students who drink alcohol had an elevated risk of using both legal and illicit drugs.

A study analyzed data that was collected from 14,577 high school seniors from 120 public and private schools in the U.S. Comparing substance abuse rates between non-drinkers and drinkers, researchers discovered that seniors in high school who had consumed alcohol at least once in their lives were 13 times more likely to smoke cigarettes, 16 times more likely to use cannabis and other narcotics, and 13 times more likely to use cocaine.

Alcohol is by far the most commonly used and abused substance, and after a few drinks, you’re way more likely to reach to do things that you otherwise wouldn’t, like dancing on a table, start a fight, reach for a cigarette, or even say yes to a line of cocaine.

After ingesting tobacco while under the influence, each time you drink – you will likely get an urge to smoke. Since nicotine and alcohol both increase dopamine levels, together the two mechanisms can be irresistible to an intoxicated brain. Same goes for cocaine.

Researchers from Yale also found that alcohol and cigarettes are more likely to precede opiate abuse than cannabis.

Alcohol should be absolute primary focus when it comes to school-based substance abuse prevention, and it should also be known by parents. Alcohol is the most widely available and socially acceptable drug, it is also responsible for thousands of deaths, countless injuries and terrible nights, every year. Despite the fact that it’s addictive and dangerous, people continue to normalize alcohol consumption in a way that would never be tolerated with other drugs

Dr. Karen Van Gundy, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire agrees that alcohol should be considered as the gateway drug, not cannabis. Whether cannabis users end up using more illicit drugs in the future will depend more on social factors such as stress, emotional trauma, and unemployment and less about whether or not they smoked a joint with their friends in the eighth grade.

Cannabis is not the most common and is rarely the first illicit drug used, underage smoking and alcohol use typically precede cannabis use. Alcohol is also one of the hardest substances to get off your mind, for alcoholics in recovery, triggers and temptations are everywhere.

On the other hand, researchers have actually found that cannabis may even help  prevent cell damage due to excessive alcohol consumption. One study conducted on rats found that cannabidiol, a cannabis compound, may be an effective remedy in the treatment of alcohol-induced neurodegeneration. Though it should be noted that this study and others like it have not been conducted in humans yet, so it is hard to know its true effect yet. Regardless of its potential benefits, addiction rates for marijuana are still significantly lower than other drugs, both legal and illegal.

As long as drinking remains the social norm, signs of dependency and addiction may  not be recognized in many cases. This substance is problematic and yet many pretend that alcohol is ‘different’ and safer than other drugs. Because of this social normalization we tend not to teach everyone who consumes it to do so responsibly.

This needs to start early as most start or at least try drinking long before they reach legal age of 21. This does not mean cannabis doesn’t have the potential for abuse or addiction, a true topic that deserves discussion. However with its ubiquitous availability your child is more likely to be offered alcohol at a highschool party than anything else. What have you taught them about this socially acceptable gateway drug?

  1. UF study shows long-term drug abuse starts with alcohol https://news.ufl.edu/archive/2012/07/uf-study-shows-long-term-drug-abuse-starts-with-alcohol.html
  2. World Drug Report 2017 https://www.unodc.org/wdr2017/
  3. Alcohol as a gateway drug: a study of US 12th graders https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22712674
  4. Biological processes underlying co-use of alcohol and nicotine https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh293/186-192.pdf

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