Exploring Whether Marijuana is a Gateway Drug or Not

Of all the contentious issues around the morality of pot stocks, one of the biggest battle lines has been drawn around the issue of whether marijuana use leads to the use of harder drugs.

Here’s how hard it is to get to a clear answer: in the top responses to the Google query, “Is pot a gateway drug?” here’s what popped up:

  • Using Marijuana May Not Raise the Risk of Using Harder Drugs | RAND
  • Marijuana Has Proven to Be a Gateway Drug – NYTimes.com
  • Once and for All, Marijuana Is Not a Gateway Drug – VICE
  • Marijuana Is Now Teens’ Most Popular First Drug – The Atlantic

Two for and two against – and quite definitive on both sides!

Gateway Issues Explored

The gateway theory is simply that marijuana is likely to be used before advancing to ‘harder’ drugs such as opioids. The reasons this might be true fall into two categories

  • The National Institute of Health (NIH) describes this category as “priming the brain to experience greater addictive effects from other drugs”.
  • The second reason for marijuana as a gateway drug, also from the NIH, more as an illegal substance (previously and still in most states) marijuana first is likely due to accessibility and lower cost, and then the relationships built with other users/dealers gives increased exposure to other, more dangerous drugs. And any dealer worth their salt will want to upsell repeat clients to more expensive/higher margin “product”. Interestingly, this is also an argument for legalization: if one doesn’t have to go to a black-market dealer to get pot, but can get it in a legal outlet, that relationship with the upselling dealer doesn’t start in the first place.

Let’s look at that second point again, because many believe that there’s an even more important point that could lead to a reduction in pot’s gateway potential. That’s the fact that until recently, anyone buying pot was breaking the law. And there are well-known links indicating people who have broken the law are willing to do so again. With that stigma and inertia of a “first illegal act” broken down, the theory is that law-abiding pot users will be less likely to go to the black market for the harder stuff.

This shocking marijuana update has huge ramifications

And there is the complete flipside – that pot is the opposite of a gateway drug and actually reduces the use of harder drugs and is safer alternative to opioid use, especially for those with chronic pain.

What Does the Data Say?

Studies on the gateway effect that have been done since recreational legalization

aren’t available (at least in my research).

However, in the broad-sweeping meta study we referenced in our last article from the National Academy of Science Engineering Medicine, their finding was:

There is moderate evidence of a statistical association between cannabis use and that the development of substance dependence and/or substance abuse disorder for substances including alcohol, tobacco, and other illicit drugs (14-3).

Other studies, including this one https://www.recoveryanswers.org/research-post/opioid-use-disorder-cannabis-produce-harm-reduce-harm/ show that marijuana users were up 5 to 9 times more likely to become opioid users three years later. (5 times more likely for occasional users and 9 times more likely for very frequent users). It’s important to note that this study, while using a large sample, was done in the early to mid 2000s and therefore doesn’t take into account the legalization effect.

A somewhat compelling result comes from two studies of identical twins one done in the Netherlands and another in Australia. They show that, in cases where one twin used cannabis before the age of seventeen and the other didn’t, the cannabis user was several times more likely to develop an addiction to opioids.

The data for whether legalized pot reduces opioid use is a bit messy, largely due to geography. Initial legalization states have low opioid use, so the data is thin. One study does show reduced opioid overdose rates in legalized states, but the NASEM panel states that the study is not conclusive.

Gateway Drug or Not?

Bottom Line for Morality: Like most of these studies on pot, there are big holes and questions. The data is moderately clear that there is a gateway effect. Whether legalization reduces this effect is the interesting question. There is enough ammunition on both sides of the issue that point to my opinion that the gateway debate will be decided after the fact by comparing legal state with illegal states.

Bottom Line for Investing: This was a major issue that I believe has been mitigated by the complexity of data and potential for legalization to actually help the problem. So it actually turns out to be a net positive for long-term cannabis investing.

For our next edition of our look at the morality of pot investing we’ll at long last look at the issue of impairment with a focus on driving. I’ve had some significant issues with getting my comments from law enforcement officials and lawyers who both deal with this issue in the trenches every day. But it will be an enlightening review when I get it all on paper!

Great Trading and God bless you,

D.R. Barton, Jr.

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