Ah Gateway Theory, if you’re a product of the D.A.R.E. generation you’ve no doubt heard of the concept. Get introduced to “soft” drugs like alcohol or marijuana and you’re all but guaranteed to turn into a heroin addict. But is it true? Where did the gateway theory come from, what’s the science behind it, and does it really explain why someone develops a substance abuse disorder?
Gateway Theory: The History
Let’s take a step back and put the gateway theory in its historical context. The hypothesis originated in 1975 out of a paper by Denise Kandel from two longitudinal surveys of substance abuse among New York State high school students. The stepping-stone theory of the 1930s, which states marijuana use results in heroin addiction, was the precursor to the gateway hypothesis. The hypothesis can be summarized in the following quote found in Kandel’s paper: “Marihuana is a crucial stage prior to the use of other illicit drugs, such as LSD, pills, or heroin.” (Kandel, 1975, p. 913)”.
It’s been thirty-six years since the D.A.R.E. program rolled out in 1983 serving as the premier drug education curriculum for our country. Since its implementation we’ve dealt with a crack epidemic during the late 80s and early 90s as well as an opioid epidemic which is ongoing. Perhaps it’s time we revamp our drug education. As for the validity of the gateway theory, we don’t know based on research. In recent years proponents have backed off from pushing the hypothesis as an explanation for addiction. Apparently D.A.R.E. doesn’t even view marijuana as a gateway drug anymore, however alcohol and tobacco still are.
Gateway Theory: The Science
What does the science say? A recent Columbia University study showed that rats given alcohol were much more likely to press a lever delivering cocaine. “The researchers also found that the alcohol suppressed two genes that normally act as cutoff switches for the effects of cocaine, creating a “permissive environment” for the drug within the rodents’ brains. (nytimes.com)”. In fact a study conducted by Denise Kandel, the gateway hypothesis’s originator, found comparable results using nicotine in mice. Interestingly enough, both studies determined that reversing the order of administration did not result in similar effects. In other words, giving the rats cocaine didn’t make them any more likely to prefer nicotine or alcohol.
On the other hand, this 2008 paper showed people suffering from chronic pain could decrease the amount of prescription opioids to relieve their ailments by supplementing it with marijuana. Further support of this comes from Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science’s following statement to Congress in 1999. “There is no conclusive evidence that the effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs. (healthland.time.com)” It’s important to mention that the report did not look at alcohol or tobacco use.
What’s the Risk?
As with most things in life the reality isn’t so much black and white but rather some shade of grey. It’s true, kids who use pot or alcohol are more likely to develop addiction or use hard drugs. It’s also true that kids who take prescription medication are more likely to develop addiction or use hard drugs. But it’s also true that kids use drugs for a wide variety of reasons. Everything is a gateway drug, the more important question, where the emphasis should be, is age of first use. The fact of the matter is that our brains are still developing until we’re in our mid 20s.
Using drugs or alcohol before that time is a recipe for trouble. Here are the numbers showing the likelihood of developing an addiction to alcohol by age of first use: forty percent of teens who start by thirteen, ten percent who start after seventeen, and one in twenty-five (four percent) of adults who start after 21. My point is this: prioritizing gateway theory, while likely valid to some degree, is a moot point. The focus should be on delaying use until 21 because of the adverse effects on a developing brain.
Back to gateway theory. It appears as though it is valid in regard to alcohol and tobacco. With that being said, the research does not seem to support it applying to marijuana. In the words of Denise Kandel courtesy of NPR.org: “When I did the analysis, I found that there was a certain sequence that young people seem to be following when they got involved in drugs. They did not start with marijuana, but they started with drugs that are legal for adults in the society, such as beer and wine and cigarettes, other forms of alcohol.”
Regardless of these findings, my gut tells me a correlation exists between marijuana and other drugs. Again, I think a major factor in this depends on the age of first use. The findings neglect to consider one very important variable and that is genetics. According to most research, genetics accounts for nearly fifty percent of a person’s likelihood of addiction. This is important when looking at someone’s exposure to any drug. Even marijuana can be like the opening of pandora’s box for someone genetically predisposed to developing an addiction. Whatever the case may be the Gateway Theory will continue to be a staple of the drug education curriculum. Additionally, it will be an explanation as to why a person progresses into substance abuse.