Is Marijuana A Gateway Drug?

Girl rolling marijuana drug.

Here we have one of the most debated, argued, and contentious subjects within the marijuana issue. The question as to whether or not marijuana is a gateway drug. A gateway drug is a drug that, while the drug itself might not be addictive, it is a drug which may lead to the use of other addictive drugs. Does marijuana meet this description?

On the one hand, there are those who believe that marijuana is a gateway drug, absolutely. And sure, if you were to talk to most heavy drug users, they would agree that marijuana was indeed their first drug.

However, what about the tens of millions of people who use marijuana every year but never go on to use hard drugs? How can marijuana be a gateway drug if the majority of people who use it never go on to use another drug? Or is this even the right question? What would the numbers look like if we included anyone who went on to use any mind-altering substances, not just socially unacceptable one?.

What Four Surgeon Generals Have Said About Marijuana

Usually, when our nation is divided on an issue regarding our health, we look to our leading medical experts for answers. Included below are the directly-quoted words of four of our nation’s Surgeon Generals, regarding their viewpoints on marijuana. (The Surgeon General is the leader of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, and is considered one of the top authorities in the field of health and medicine).

Brain damage from marijuana.

In a live video interview with The Washington Post, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams went on the record in discussing marijuana, his thoughts about the drug, and his concerns about the risks that the drug poses. In one excerpt from that interview, the Surgeon General said that “We know that marijuana primes the brain for further addiction. It can cause developmental delay, particularly in the young and developing brain. And we still don’t know the effects it can have on the rest of the body particularly if you’re smoking it. If cigarettes cause cancer, there’s every reason to believe that long term usage of marijuana can cause cancer.”

Jerome Adams is not the only Surgeon General to comment on marijuana. His predecessor Dr. Vivek Murthy had a neutral viewpoint, saying that, “My position is that we have to see what the science tells us about the efficacy of marijuana and I think we’re going to get a lot more data on that. We have some preliminary data showing that for certain medical conditions and symptoms that marijuana can be helpful.”

In the 1990s, Surgeon General M. Jocelyn Elders spoke in approval of marijuana, saying that, “The evidence is overwhelming that marijuana can relieve certain types of pain, nausea, vomiting and other symptoms caused by such illnesses as multiple sclerosis, cancer and AIDS – or by the harsh drugs sometimes used to treat them. And it can do so with remarkable safety. Indeed, marijuana is less toxic than many of the drugs that physicians prescribe every day.”

“… marijuana has a broad range of psychological and biological effects, many of which are dangerous and harmful to health…”

In the 1980s, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop spoke against marijuana, saying that, “Based on scientific evidence published to date, it is the opinion of the Department of Health and Human Services that marijuana has a broad range of psychological and biological effects, many of which are dangerous and harmful to health.”

Clearly, our top medical officials are just as split down the middle on the marijuana issues as we are. However, none of them think it’s a good idea, they simply see marijuana as potentially better than other addictive substances. Considering the things that people can put in their body, this isn’t a glowing endorsement.

Data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse

American teenagers taking drugs.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that marijuana does create an added likelihood of further substance misuse problems. To provide an example, NIDA quoted the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders and a printed research paper done by that group.

According to NIDA’s summary of the research paper, adults in the study group who were using marijuana were more likely than adults who were not using marijuana to go on to have an alcohol addiction within three year’s time. This data suggests that marijuana use can inspire further drug use and alcohol misuse in people.

In playing the Devil’s Advocate, however, the NIDA article also discusses how many people use marijuana and who do not then go on to use other, “harder” substances. So is it a gateway drug or not?

Here’s the Truth About Marijuana and “Gateway Drug” Theory

Here’s the truth about marijuana. Ready? It can get a little complicated. Marijuana is not a gateway drug, at least, not in the blanket sense that those who call it a gateway drug indicate it to be. Just because someone uses marijuana does not mean they will go on to use other drugs. In fact, odds are that they’ll probably never use a different type of drug.

Let’s look at this again.

Whether or not a drug is a “gateway” drug is not about the drug itself, rather the person using it. If the person’s first drug played a factor in inspiring the person to go on to use other drugs, then yes, it was a gateway drug, for that person. In fact, the first drug used by the majority of the population is alcohol. Since it’s rare for drug addiction to exist without alcohol use, then one could claim that Alcohol was the real gateway drug.

Attempts to demonize marijuana without looking at Alcohol use and it’s gateway effect ignore the reality that Alcohol is one of the most destructive substances known to man. It’s usually ignored because it is legal in most situations, however, this is a mistake and perpetuates the countries problem with using substances to escape what they find uncomfortable or painful.

With that in mind, marijuana use should be avoided. Using marijuana recreationally has no benefit for the user, and there is a risk. Not only is there a risk in the drug use act itself, but there is a risk that such activities will inspire one to go on to use hard drugs, to create a worsening condition that is harmful and unpleasant for oneself and one’s loved ones. The true value of the medicinal properties of marijuana or the lack thereof still remains to be seen. But we know for sure that recreational use should be avoided, one-hundred percent of the time.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.