Is Cannabis a Gateway Drug?

Weed is not always the best choice for some, but does it lead to using harder drugs? Let's take a look. 

We note that the subject contained in this article represents illegal activity in certain jurisdictions. Whilst we do not condone any acts which are contrary to any such laws, we understand that readers in those jurisdictions which have decriminalised cannabis may find this article of interest.

Marijuana has been considered a Gateway Drug for most of the twentieth century, meaning that those opposed to the plant believe its consumption will lead to the eventual consumption of a harder substance. In essence, it was believed that if you smoked weed, you'd likely end up on heroin or cocaine.

However, in the past three decades, this stigmatic reputation has been slowly dwindling. This is thanks to the fact that legalization is increasing, and emergent research surrounding cannabis is starting to paint a picture of the wealth of benefits that come with cannabis use.

Moreover, the current COVID-19 pandemic has seen the cannabis industry deemed "essential," with sales of cannabis skyrocketing throughout the U.S. and Canada. States like Illinois are consistently bringing in over $30 million every month in cannabis sales, and even here in Australia where cannabis remains only medicinally legal, patient prescriptions have grown by the thousands every month.

But was the Gateway Theory accurate? Are we simply walking along a path that leads to drug abuse and addiction?

What is a Gateway Drug? 

A 'gateway drug' refers to a 'soft' drug that, if used, will lead the user to try harder drugs like cocaine or heroin. Soft drugs include alcohol, cannabis and tobacco and therefore act as a gateway.  

Weed, under this theory, is a softer drug, meaning that its effects are relatively safe. The high one experiences from THC – the psycho-active cannabinoid found in the plant – elicits a mood-altering, munchie-inducing, euphoric experience. Yet, it's impossible to overdose and only a small demographic of individuals end up developing an addiction to it. However, as the theory stipulates, cannabis is likely to set a foundation for future substance intake. 

Now, this is not to say that weed-lovers have not gone on to try other illicit drugs, because of course, many of them have. But is cannabis use the direct cause of using these harder drugs?

Let's take a look to understand why cannabis has maintained its reputation of being a gateway drug. 

The History of the Gateway Theory

The perception that weed leads to all things terrible can be attributed to Harry J. Anslinger in the 1930s. Heavy propaganda was used to demonise the plant, including using racist campaigns. Anslinger went to great lengths to change the public opinion of cannabis. 

Anslinger described cannabis as "more dangerous than heroin and cocaine". Eventually, his campaigning was successful when the Marijuana Tax Act passed in 1937. This criminalised cannabis and allowed the government to place a levy tax on cannabis products.

Branding cannabis as a 'gateway drug' became popular in the 1980s during Reagans's revitalised anti-drug campaign. The term stemmed from Dr. Robert Du Pont Jr. in his book Getting Tough on Gateway Drugs: A Guide for the Family. Du Pont concluded that prevention of harder drugs-use was the result of avoiding cannabis, specifically in adolescents.

Du Pont also stated that if adolescents avoided alcohol and tobacco then they would be less likely go on to use cannabis.

Interestingly, Du Pont's overall conclusion was that if young people engage in soft drugs, then they will be less cautious to try harder drugs. He didn't, however, say that this was a direct causality of cannabis. Though because the stigma of cannabis was at its peak, these findings misled the public to think of cannabis as an illicit drug even more so than before. 

What does the Evidence Say? 

The evidence states that there is, in fact, a correlation between young people using cannabis before going on to harder drugs. 

Kandal's study in 1984 found that only 7% of adolescents, who had never engaged in cannabis use, admitted to using harder drugs. This rate increased to 33% when respondents had tried cannabis. This rate increased again to 84% in those who smoked cannabis every day. 

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) found that alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis use in adolescents aged 12 -17 years were, on average, 17 times more likely to use harder drugs. 

Now, the issue lies within data reflecting a correlation between weed and harder drugs, not a causality. The Gateway Theory stipulates that smoking weed will inevitably lead to using heroin and cocaine. While there is a correlation, there's no clinical evidence to support that one leads to another. 

There is, however, a likely reason that young cannabis users are more likely to use harder drugs: their age. 

There is an amalgamation of evidence that heeds warning to cannabis use in adolescents compared to other demographics. This is because of how cannabis affects our body through our endocannabinoid system (ECS). 

When cannabinoids release into the body, it interacts with our ECS and reacts with our reward system. Weed can alter our dopamine and serotonin levels which is results in the euphoric feeling of being high. 

Because the adolescent mind is still developing, too much exposure to weed can eventually begin to alter long-term dopamine levels. When the reactivity of dopamine decreases, it alters how we feel pleasure. When the high loses its effect, then individuals are more likely to seek out something stronger to get the job done. 

Gateway or Exit?

On the contrary to the political agenda, the use of cannabis is more likely to ween individuals off harder drugs than the other way around. 

Weed is medically legal in 33 U.S. states. It's also medically legal and all states and territories in Australia. The gateway theory is not as stable as it once was; the research is beginning to shed a more positive light on the plant. One example of this, is the role of cannabis as an exit drug for opioid use.

The Opioid Crisis is currently at an all-time high. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) opioid-related deaths had a 12-fold increase between 2012 – 2018 despite a decrease in overall drug-overdose deaths. 

Weed is being praised for helping individuals for transitioning off opioids. In fact, in the states where weed is medically legal, opioid prescriptions have gone down. Physicians are recommending weed to help with pain-relief, including arthritis, cancer pain, and sports injuries. 

In fact, one study found that cannabis users chose the plant over opioids because it not only produced the same effects but did so without the undesirable side effects. 


The legalisation of cannabis is growing steadily around the world. Australia's national capital, Canberra, became the country's first territory to legalise the possession and cultivation of cannabis in January 2020. 

The U.S. has legalised recreational cannabis use in 11 states, while 33 states utilise the plant's medical benefits. Qualifying conditions range from nausea to neurodegenerative diseases. Meanwhile, marijuana state-laws are continually updating laws to accommodate for patients.

A survey showed that 54% of New Zealand citizens are in favour of cannabis legalisation; Canada has legalised the plant entirely.

The argument that weed is a Gateway Drug is no longer viable. Marijuana laws are evolving more so now than ever before. CBD, for example, is now a commercially sold product under the 2018 Farm Bill. 

Weed is no longer a gateway to anything, it doesn't lead to violence or disorder. And although its users can go on to use harder drugs, it's not a direct cause. 

The drug itself isn't the issue, it's the lack of education behind it. And we're finally catching up. 

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Taylor Ridewood
Taylor Ridewood

Taylor is a Sydney-based writer with a background in psychology and professional writing. She has a keen interest in the benefits of medicinal cannabis and enjoys researching the multi-faceted effects of cannabis on the body and mind.

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