Culture / News

Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: Understanding the False Logic

No, marijuana is not a gateway drug. But to fully explain why it isn’t, there a few things to consider.

Jun 3, 2015 - HERB

The short answer: Absolutely not!

The long answer: To fully explain why marijuana is not a gateway drug we need to define two things. What does “gateway” mean and how does a substance receive that definition?

The “Gate” in Gateway

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Photo credit: Ganesha Balunsat

In order for something to be considered a “gateway”, it must come first in the line of other things tried.

What is perhaps most absurd about the argument that marijuana is a gateway drug is that it is rarely the first drug people try. Perhaps it is the first “illicit” drug they have tried, but if you consider the illegality of underage tobacco and alcohol consumption, marijuana is rarely the first illicit substance to be experimented with. According to The Atlantic, 88% of people start with alcohol, and of that group, 34% move on to cannabis.*

Furthermore, it’s reported that only 19% of cannabis users try the herb before any other substance—making the “gateway” hypothesis a little nonsensical. Of cannabis users, 40% do not move on to other substances. Of the 60% that do move on to other drugs, 17% of those users move on to alcohol.

To summarize these numbers, the study shows that alcohol is most often the first substance people try, and less than half of all people who have ever used cannabis move on to other substances. Furthermore, according to a PBS interview with Mark Kleiman, a professor at UCLA, about 75% of people who use any type of drug use only cannabis.

In a 2015 interview with NPR, Dr. Denise Kandel (who published the paper on the Gateway hypothesis in the 1970s) stated that young people didn’t start with cannabis, but rather with drugs that are legal for adults—such as alcohol and tobacco. Dr. Kandel found that nicotine primes the brain for addiction and thereby should be considered as a gateway substance.

*  This study does not include tobacco and therefore the numbers are likely lower.

Correlation vs. Causation

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Photo credit: Circuito Fora do Eixo

Just because two things occur simultaneously, does not necessarily mean that one causes the other. So, just because people have experimented with both cannabis and harder drugs does not mean that trying harder drugs was a result of trying cannabis.

A Columbia University study cited that children who use marijuana are 85 times more likely to use cocaine than non-marijuana users. Although it may sound shocking at first, there are two things to consider. Firstly, 90% of children who used marijuana smoked tobacco or drank alcohol first. Secondly,  just because these children were more likely to use cocaine, does not mean that the marijuana use made them move on to cocaine. People who never try these substances are rarely ever going to jump into hard drugs. Or as Time Magazine put it:

Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang members are probably 104 times more likely to have ridden a bicycle as a kid than those who don’t become Hell’s Angels, but that doesn’t mean that riding a two-wheeler is a “gateway” to joining a motorcycle gang. It simply means that most people ride bikes and the kind of people who don’t are highly unlikely to ever ride a motorcycle.

Let’s not make assumptions, especially when the science isn’t there to back them.

To sum it up:

  • Very few people start with cannabis before anything else.
  • Most people who use cannabis, don’t go on to use other drugs.
  • Correlation does not equal causation. Just because people who have used cannabis are “more likely” to have tried other drugs does not mean that marijuana caused them to have other drugs


So is marijuana a gateway drug? No, we certainly don’t think so. Have you ever argued with someone who believes that it is? Tell us your stories!

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