“The more we study marijuana, the more it begins to look just like every other drug of abuse.”
– Dr. Robert Margolis, a drug addiction specialist
Is marijuana a gateway drug?
“I don’t think so,” 18-year-old Katie Falkenberg says.
“I just have known kids who have done it and they don’t do anything else,” adds Randy Glance 17.
“I don’t think it’s gonna lead them into anything bigger,” 17-year-old Cody McGuire says.
But a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests these teens are wrong.
The study examined 311 sets of twins, with one twin in each set having smoke marijuana before age 17.
“And what they found is that the twin who began smoking marijuana at a much earlier age had a very high increase in the probability that that twin would go on to use other drugs other than marijuana,” says Dr. Robert Margolis, an addiction specialist.
“As for me, it led within about a month period to other drugs,” says Kelly Crockett, 18.
Kelly says smoking pot got her closer to people who used hard drugs.
“And it’s like, ‘Hey, you like the way this made you feel? Try this, you know?’ And I was up for it, you know, part of me was like OK, if I say no, you know they won’t think I’m cool anymore,” she says.
Experts say pot also releases dopamine in the brain, just like harder drugs do.
“So if marijuana triggers the release of dopamine and cocaine triggers the release of dopamine and heroin triggers the release of dopamine, it makes sense that smoking marijuana may be priming the brain, getting the brain ready for these other drugs,” Dr. Margolis says.
But experts say many kids – and their parents – think marijuana is virtually harmless.
“Don’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s only marijuana,’” Dr. Margolis says.
Instead, parents should arm themselves with information from credible sources and send a strong message to kids: Marijuana is illegal, unhealthy and could very well be a gateway to other drugs.
“I know that it is, and anyone that thinks that it isn’t, it’s kind of sad to say this, but wait and find out … you probably will, you know,” Kelly says.
Tips for Parents
Does the early use of marijuana lead to the future abuse of harsher drugs? Australian researchers say the findings from their study of twins is further evidence in support of the “gateway” theory – where the use of “soft” drugs like pot fuels a future desire to seek a more intense “high” by trying stronger drugs.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, tracked 311 sets of fraternal and identical twins, with each set having one twin who smoked marijuana prior to age 17. Researchers found that the twins who smoked marijuana were two to five times more likely than their siblings to abuse alcohol and harsher drugs, like heroin and cocaine, in their 20s and 30s. In fact, among the early marijuana users, 48% reported using cocaine and other stimulants as adults, 35% tried hallucinogens, 14% used heroin and other opiates, 46% later abused or became dependent on marijuana and 43% became alcohol dependent.
It is important to note, however, that the researchers caution that early marijuana use by no means guarantees abuse of other drugs later on in life. Rather, it is associated with a heightened risk of future abuse.
So how big of a problem is marijuana use during the teen years? According to a recent National Household Survey on Drug Use, 2.7 million Americans aged 12 and older used illicit drugs at least once in the month prior to being surveyed. Of those, the majority, 56.2 said their first drug was marijuana. Consider these additional statistics about marijuana use from the survey:
6 thousand Americans try marijuana for the first time everyday.
The age of first use on average is 17.6 years of age.
Most of the first time users on average were under the age of 18.
Marijuana, the most often used illegal drug in this country, is a green or gray mixture of dried, shredded flowers and leaves of the hemp plant. It is addictive and is known to have both short- and long-term negative effects on the body. The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention cites the following health problems associated with marijuana use:
Problems with memory and learning
Distorted perception (sights, sounds, time, touch, etc.)
Trouble with thinking and problem-solving
Loss of coordination
Increased heart rate and anxiety
Cancer: Smoking one joint is equivalent to smoking a whole pack of cigarettes.
Lungs and airways: Breathing problems include coughing, wheezing and a greater risk of lung infections.
Immune system: Continued use weakens the immune system, placing an individual at greater risk of sickness.
Reproductive system: Using marijuana increases testosterone levels in women and decreases testosterone levels in men, presents a risk of infertility in women and for men, it delays the onset of puberty and leads to decreased sperm production and quality.
How can you recognize if your teen is using marijuana? The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests looking for the following physical signs in your teen:
Seems dizzy and has trouble walking
Seems silly and giggles for no reason
Has very red, bloodshot eyes
Has a hard time remembering things that just happened
Becomes very sleepy as the early effects of use begin to fade
The NIDA says that you should also be aware of the following changes in behavior that may indicate marijuana use in your teen:
Carelessness with grooming
Hostility and deteriorating relationships with family members and friends
Changes in academic performance
Increased absenteeism or truancy
Lost interest in sports or other favorite activities
Changes in eating or sleeping habits
Signs of drugs and drug paraphernalia, including pipes and rolling papers
Odor on clothes and in the bedroom
Use of incense and other deodorizers
Increased use of eye drops
Clothing, posters, jewelry, etc., promoting drug use
If you suspect that your teen has a drug problem, it is important that you seek immediate treatment. Consult a psychiatrist or mental health professional when making decisions about substance abuse treatment for your teen. Remember that recovery from an addiction is a long-term process and may require frequent and multiple episodes of treatment.
As a parent, you have the most influence over your teen’s choice to use drugs. Therefore, it is important that you address the topic of drug use early on and often. Don’t wait until your teen has a problem with drugs before you bring up the discussion. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America offers these additional strategies for preventing drug use in your teen:
Be involved in your teen’s life. Ask who, what, when and where: Know who your teen’s friends are, what your teen is doing, when he or she will be home and where he or she is going.
Spend quality time with your teen. Eat dinner together, listen to music, watch a ball game or share chores.
Set a firm rule of no drug use in your family.
Commit yourself to a drug-free lifestyle. You are your teen’s most important role model. He or she notices everything you do.
Share your values with your teen. Sometimes it’s as simple as letting your teen know that you don’t want him or her using marijuana.
Center for Substance Abuse Prevention
Journal of the American Medical Association
National Household Survey on Drug Use
National Institute on Drug Abuse
Partnership for a Drug-Free America