Today I’m going to take a break from my usual hacker-related subject matter and talk about another topic that’s close to me – drugs. Specifically, Marijuana or weed, dope, pot, ganja. As you may or may not know, I’m a former addict (going on 6 years clean) and I serve on the board of the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization (a.k.a. HERO). In the course of my work with HERO I’ve given a fair number of talks about my own personal story and about some of the facts and myths surrounding drugs of abuse. One particularly harmful myth that I frequently address is the idea that Marijuana is a gateway drug. It isn’t. At least not in the way most people were taught and I hope to dispell this myth one person at a time.
The Myth and The Truth
When you were younger I’m sure you were taught at one point or another (or at many points) that smoking pot leads to hard drugs and eventual homelessness and/or death. That’s very wrong and you need to completely erase that idea from you mind. I work with a lot parents who want answers as to why their child has started using Heroin or some other hard drug. Often times they see weed as the drug that started it and blame their child’s progression to Heroin on Marijuana. I tell these parents that the old gateway drug theory they were taught when they were younger is false but not for the reasons they think.
The basic idea that was pounded into all of our heads when we were younger goes something like this: Innocent children get introduced to pot by someone. They like it a lot. So then they smoke more. Eventually they build a tolderance to the drug and crave something stronger. So at that point they somehow go from smoking weed on a couch while eating junk food and watching Yellow Submarine to sticking a needle full of Heroin into their arms. This is patently ridiculous and laughable.
Here’s what really happens: Kids are taught from the time they’re old enough to be around other kids that smoking weed will cause them to become dirty drug addicts and end up homeless and/or dead. They really don’t explain how this happens but the weird logic is something like “smoking weed makes you want stronger stuff so you do some Heroin or Coke and die the first time with some homelessness thrown in there somewhere and somehow”. So kids then internalize this thinking but one day, when they get old enough, they’re introduced to pot at a party or something. It’s at this point that something funny happens: they don’t die. They don’t become homeless. They don’t crave more weed or harder drugs. In fact, nothing negative happens at all! This is where the standard gateway theory breaks down. At this point instead of craving harder drugs what happens is that the person who’s been taught that Marijuana is such a terrible thing finds out that they were taught a lie. Once they realize they’ve been lied to about weed they wonder what else have they been lied to about. Combine this question with adolescent curiostity and teenage rebellion and you have a recipe for addiction.
The thing about teenagers is that the part of their brains that regulate self-control are still forming and this, combined with their desire to become their own person (where the rebellion and curiosity play in) is what causes a child to go from Marijuana to harder drugs. It isn’t Marijuana itself. In fact, you can replace Marijuana in this equation with any substance at all and it would work the same way. Alcohol is no more a gateway drug than pot and the same applied to any and all prescription medications. Once a person knows they’ve been lied to they’re more likely to try a harder drug when offered and it has nothing to do with craving something more powerful as it has to do with simple curiosity. So once the person tries a more addictive drug like cocaine or Heroin things then spiral out of control. These drugs, unlike weed, are incredibly addictive and habit forming. They rewire the brain in ways that create a kind of feedback loop that’s hard to break. The loop, in a very simple short way, works like this: drug releases dopamine, reinforces bhavior with positive feelings, more drugs are taken for the same effect. Then the brain readjusts itself by downregulating the dopamine that it produces on its own to counter to flood of dopamine created by ingesting drugs. This creates a situation where the brain is making lower than normal amounts of certain neurotransmitters because it expects them to come from the outisde (in the form of certain drugs). Once this happens there are only two ways to balance the brain’s chemicals again. Either take drugs (i.e. he quick and easy way) or abstain from the drug that caused this downregulation in the first place (i.e. the slow, hard, and painful way also known as “cold turkey”).
Why Do Addicts Happen?
So I’ve just explained the truth of the gateway theory and while it may seem like there isn’t much difference between the facts and the realities the subtle differences are incredibly important in understanding drug abuse and how polydrug abuse happens. My explanation leaves out a few things though. In an ideal situation, with a perfectly healthy individual (physically and mentally) who’s been educated correctly about Marijuana there should be no gateway effect. This barrs any situation where the person is introduced to a hard drug first or becomes curious about harder drugs on their own. This happens and will always happen no matter what but it still does not mean that the gateway theory as we were taught is right. In our search for answers to the questions that come up when dealing with an addict in the family the cliche and incorrect version of the gateway theory is very tempting to latch on to. Unfortunately, addiction is much more complex than we can deal with in such situations.
A perfectly normal and healthy individual can become an addict under the right conditions but not because pot makes them crave something stronger. We don’t live in a perfect world though and we’re not always dealing with perfectly healthy and normal individuals. One of the major factors contributing to drug abuse is psychological distress. Besides some more serious mental illnesses, things like depression or even situational depression (where the depression is tied to an event rather than coming about “on its own” so to speak) can cause abusive behavior. I know for me personally, my own life-long struggle with depression led me to become a polydrug abuser. I tried Marijuana first because it was easily available and seemed harmless. And guess what, it was harmless. The reason for many people’s addictions is that they search for temporary relief to their depression and that relief turns into a hard to break addiction. There are many reasons for why addicts are created but to blame Marijuana is just wrong. Its far too simplistic and doesn’t come close to touching the true cause of why people pick up a drug to begin with.
Alcohol and tobacco are far more harmful than Marijuana and, unlike Marijuana, are intensely addicting. That’s right, I said Marijuana is not addictive! Yes, it is habit forming but certainly not addictive. There’s a huge difference. A habit is something learned. It’s like a very mild compulsion. I have a habit of folding one leg under me, half indian style, when I sit at my desk at work. That’s a habit that I can teach myself to stop. It’s harmless and can be unlearned. Stopping it requires vigilance but it will have no negative impact on me and won’t change my brain in any way. Smoking however, is an addiction of mine. The wiring of my brain has changed so that now my brain relies on me puffing a cigarrette every so many hours to keep the balance of neurotransmitters in my brain balanced. If I were to quit smoking I will be depriving my brain of the jumpstart it relies on to release certain neurotransmitters like dopamine and acetylcholine. If I were to quit I would suffer from the withdrawal syndrome associated with Nicotine. Marijuana doesn’t have a true withdrawal syndrome. Some people do report withdrawal from Marijuana but that comes from seriously heavy use, isn’t consistently reported, and is pretty mild when it happens. It’s a lot like what you’d expect from giving up sweets for a month.
Marijuana does have legitimate medical uses as well. Its been proven helpful in the treatment of glaucoma, treating nausea associated with chemotherapy, pain relief, and as a treatment for anxiety among other conditions. Its demonization comes not from any real negative effects of the drug, but instead because of racism, fear, and corporate protectionism, and misinformation. Marijuana, like I’ve been saying, is no more harmful than alcohol and in fact is far safer than alcohol. Actually, a funny fact about Marijuana is that it isn’t exactly as illegal as many people believe. There is a law on the books called the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937. In a nutshell the law doesn’t make Marijuana exactly illegal but instead imposes a tax on the sale of Marijuana. In order to sell Marijuana you need a license from the federal government. But heres the really funny catch: the government will not grant anyone a license! So in practical terms, they’ve basically made it illegal. Now that states have begun to legalize it things are changing but up until then this was the prevailing Marijuana law of the land. But that’s a story for another day.
Marijuana is not the terrible drug that people want to make you believe it is. The gateway theory of Marijuana being a gateway to hard drugs is also bunk. To understand addiction, how it happens, and why it happens you have to look at the addict and the situation as a whole. In most cases its easier to blame it on a little pot and spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt but in reality there’s far more going on than just a little pot leading to cocain or Heroin. If Marijuana is a gateway drug then so is alcohol and coffee and chocolate and Prozac. But really it’s all bunk. Don’t believe the hype. There are answers to your questions but they’re not as simple as the misinformation-based gateway drug theory.