Reconsidering Marijuana as a Gateway Drug

marijuana addiction rates

You are worried about your son’s marijuana habits. He locks himself in his room, talks only half as much as he used to, and really only comes when called. Dinners are quiet, family activities are shrugged off, and your relationship with him feels stunted. He just doesn’t seem like the same, energetic kid he was a year ago. He’s a teenager. It’s normal. It’s just a phase.

Marijuana use is not uncommon, but often overlooked. This drug has become easier to obtain than something as small as soda pop, and as large as, say, a best friend. Of course we should worry, but why don’t we?

marijuana gateway drug statistics

Marijuana is the most prevalent illicit drug used throughout the United States. Cannabis production has increased tenfold over the past 25 years and legalization debates throughout the country are incessantly unfolding across television screens. With the media, pop culture, even political campaigns, staging marijuana as harmless and addiction as insignificant, it’s no wonder why we’re questioning whether or not this drug is such a big deal after all. Should we really be worried about our children smoking a little bit of pot? It’s not cocaine, right?

Not yet. But here is another fact: Of adults who previously used marijuana before the age of 15, 62 percent went on to use cocaine at least once, 9 percent on to heroin, and 54 percent on to the use of nonmedical, mind-altering prescription drugs.

While the direct effects of marijuana are often trivialized, we shouldn’t deny what its use can foretell. Recognizing marijuana as a gateway drug allows us to recognize the potential of other illicit drug use that will inflict much greater damages—to health, to relationships, and to one’s overall development. By using a “soft” or “mild” drug that is already at their fingertips, youth can transition from marijuana to something harder with much less of a dive. One foot is already in the water. Any apprehensions are eased if not already diminished. Educated by their peers, curiosity spawns. The prospect of a new, stronger high becomes more appealing.

Because it is now so widely available, marijuana is inevitably the first illicit drug that we encounter. We just don’t realize that when we encounter one, we encounter them all. That is the premise behind the gateway theory, deeming that marijuana is in fact a precursor to other, more serious, substances. It starts from the very initiation. Users of marijuana inescapably enter a drug culture, one that is heaving with social pressures and new opportunities to experiment with illegal substances. Upon the very start of the exchange, connections are established with sellers and users alike. The persuasions are strong, the moments transitory, the effects liberating.  He is exposed.

The problem is that the frequent “everybody’s doing it” mantra is starting to become the literal case, and we are accepting it. The Drug Enforcement Agency reports that 71 percent of teens have friends who smoke regularly. Yet they are not always aware of the consequences.

Initiating the use of marijuana in early adolescence is ominous, as young brains are still very much developing. While teenage years may be the time for “experimenting,” they are also the peak learning years in brain development. Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the main active chemical in marijuana that gives the user his high. More significantly, it is a chemical that strongly alters the way sensory information is processed by the brain: learning, memory, attention span, and perception are all inhibited with recurrent marijuana use.

Over decades, THC levels in cannabis have greatly increased, making pot more intoxicating than ever before. With such elevated potency lie a great increase in recorded marijuana addiction and its supplementary treatment. More young people today are receiving treatment for marijuana dependency than for alcohol or any other illegal substances combined.

According to the 2013 NSDUH, marijuana accounted for the majority of Americans battling drug addictions. About 9 percent of marijuana users become addicted, and that statistic nearly doubles in those who started using as teens. Worse than that, adults who were early marijuana users were found five times more likely to become dependent on other illicit drugs—ones that with a single wrong hit, blow, or batch, can be fatal.

The answer is no, marijuana use is not just a phase. It’s a wobbly stepping-stone, a gateway in which we should keep our youth from striding through. And Turnbridge can do just that. With specific programs targeted at teen addiction treatment, we enhance adolescents’ want to grow, change, and take on this world without drugs. Call 877-581-1793 for more information, or to further learn about designated treatment programs for teen rehabilitation. He is a good kid, after all, and his addiction deserves attention. It warrants your concern.