There’s a lot of debate about whether cannabis could lead to harder stuff. Michelle Taylor discusses the evidence. (Michelle Taylor is a researcher at University of Bristol)
What is the Gateway Hypothesis
The Gateway hypothesis states that there is a causal sequence through classes of drugs, whereby the use of “less harmful” substances is a risk factor for using “harder drugs”. Alcohol, tobacco and cannabis are often referred to as gateway drugs, with the suggestion that tobacco and alcohol (two classes of drugs that are legal) lead to the use of cannabis which then leads on to other illicit drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamines, and heroin.
The hypothesis suggests that the use of soft drugs, such as those above, may lead to the use of harder drugs via a sequence of stages. This is based on the observation that individuals who have used cocaine and heroin have previously used cannabis, and those that have used cannabis have previously used alcohol and tobacco. However, as described below, this could be down to availability of and attitudes towards drugs rather than an actual causal pathway.
Cannabis as a Gateway Drug
On the whole, research generally supports the notion that cannabis use is a risk factor for subsequent use of “harder” illicit drugs, although some are in disagreement with this.
The risk of other illicit drug use in cannabis users may be higher because few people try hard drugs prior to trying cannabis and not because cannabis actually causes the use of harder drugs. Therefore, observed associations could be the result of societal ordering and availability of drug.
It is important to remember that current research has only provided evidence of association, and not causation, meaning that there is no evidence that cannabis use actually causes the use of later drug use, merely that the two behaviours are linked, a link which could be due to factors which commonly influence both behaviours.
Cannabis as a Reverse Gateway Drug
The reverse gateway hypothesis suggests that earlier regular cannabis use predicts later licit drug use in those who had not previous used licit drugs.
This hypothesis was generated by qualitative research, however there has been little quantitative research to confirm or deny this notion.
Qualitative research suggesting that cannabis use is a risk factor for tobacco use could be explained simply be co-use of the substances, whereby tobacco is mixed with cannabis for use therefore leading to nicotine addiction through the use of cannabis.
On the whole, research on this topic is bleak, however some studies have suggest that cannabis use is actually protective of alcohol use. A possible explanation for this being that individuals merely have a drug, and ‘high’, of choice.
Other research has suggested that individuals who use cannabis first and then transition onto licit drug use are less likely to use harder substances than those who use licit drugs before transitioning to cannabis use. However, as previously mentioned it is possible that these associations are due to many underlying common causal factors.
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