Is Cannabis a Gateway Drug?

A recent study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse reveals cannabis is only a ‘gateway drug’ if you’re a bored teenager. As one of the UK’s only private cannabis rehab centres, Cassiobury Court throws in its 2 cents on this issue including a cannabis detox.

Data this study was based on

The study, conducted by Dr Joseph Palamar at New York University, analysed data from a second study known as ‘Monitoring the Future’. This annual second study was conducted in 130 schools in over forty-eight different US States between 2002 and 2011. Each year around 15,000 students aged between 17-18 years were asked whether they consumed an illicit drug over the past twelve months. These drugs include cannabis, cocaine, crack-cocaine, heroin, LSD, other psychedelics, amphetamine, tranquilizers and ‘other narcotics’. The study also determined students’ specific reasons for consuming these drugs.

The dangers of being young and bored

Dr Palamar’s 2015 study analysed these reasons as applied to cannabis consumption. Data reveals 70% of those surveyed between 2002 and 2011 consumed cannabis as their ‘first drug’. 66% of cannabis users did not go on to consumer heavier drugs such as heroin and cocaine after taking cannabis. 33% of users took the cannabis as a means of relieving their boredom. This was the group most likely to go on and take heavier drugs. Where boredom was the reason given for taking cannabis, the user was 43% more likely to try heavier drugs and 58% more likely to take LSD when compared to cannabis users who took the drug for reasons other than to cure their boredom. Those who took cannabis ‘to experiment’ were far less likely to consume heavier and more dangerous drugs than those who took cannabis to relieve their boredom.

Dr Joseph Palamar told Cassiobury Court: “Interestingly, we found that using marijuana ‘to experiment’ decreased the risk of reporting use of each of the eight drugs examined before adjusting for other variables. ”

“The marijuana users in this sample who used to experiment were consistently at low risk for use of non-medical use of prescription narcotics.”

About the gateway theory

The current study seems to weaken the so-called ‘gateway theory’ of cannabis use. This theory states those who take cannabis are much more likely to consume Class A drugs such as cocaine and heroin compared to those who do not take cannabis. The gateway theory is often used to justify cannabis’s current legal status in the United Kingdom (August, 2015). Many argue the gateway theory’s logic is non-sequitur and hence illogical i.e. because A takes illegal drug B, A is now more likely to take illegal drug C.

Gateway theorists base their argument on two key points:

  • A study showing rats who took THC (the active psychoactive substance in cannabis) were now extra sensitive to drugs such as morphine and cocaine. However rats also increased their sensitivity to harder drugs after being exposed to alcohol and nicotine
  • Teens are likely to mix with the wrong crowd as a result of their cannabis use. This crowd believes it acceptable to consume one illegal drug (cannabis) and so will also find it acceptable to consume other illegal drugs (such as heroin and cocaine). Cannabis use also puts teens into contact with drug dealers who sell harder drugs

The above beliefs contradict a 2012 study conducted by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealing 88% of hard drug users started with alcohol, not cannabis. And alcohol is often a gateway drug to cannabis.

Arguing against the gateway theory, Dr Palamar said: “It seems that only a subset of illicit marijuana users is at risk for use of other illicit drugs. ”

“Most teens who use marijuana don’t progress to use of other drugs and we believe this is evidenced in part by the fact that nearly two-thirds of these marijuana-using teens did not report use of any of the other illicit drugs we examined. ”

Results published in the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health illustrates that 60% of cannabis users do in fact progress to try other drugs. However it seems unfair to single out cannabis as the main-gateway drug, especially since the 2012 survey found 88% of hard-drug users began with alcohol.

Implications of Dr Palamar’s 2015 study

Dr Palamar’s study indicates teens who take cannabis to ease boredom are more likely to progress onto harder drugs, especially when compared to teens who take cannabis for ‘reasons other than boredom’. The results of this study may aid researchers in devising ways of identifying teens most likely to take drugs for reasons of boredom. A programme of education may then be put in place to prevent drug use amongst this ‘at risk’ group.

Dr Palamar said: “Programmes and education efforts, for example, can benefit from knowing that marijuana users who use because they are bored are more likely to use certain other drugs. ”

“It may be feasible for prevention programmes to address ways of coping with factors such as boredom in order to decrease risk. ”

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids’ CEO, Marcia Lee Taylor, agrees with this sentiment. She said: “No matter what drug we’re talking about, motivations are really important. We need to understand what is motivating a teen to use if we want to know how to prevent it.”


We hope you enjoyed this blog post. At Cassiobury Court we offer a four-week cannabis rehab programme. Contact our admissions team if you wish to learn more about this programme.