Is cannabis a 'gateway drug'? If my child starts smoking weed, will they go onto using 'harder drugs'?

Carol was a mother of three girls, the eldest of which, Kath, attended university. Kath had always tried to 'push boundaries'. Carol approached me to ask for my advice after she had recently found a bag of what she believed to be cannabis in her eldest daughter's drawer. She was terribly distressed. She had a range of concerns, including the effect this could possibly have on her two younger daughters and of course the illegality of the drug, but her greatest worry was about what was next ...

"Where does she go from here?" Carol asked me. "If she's using this now, what will she be experimenting with in the future?"

Over the years I have spoken to many parents who have found themselves in exactly the same situation as Carol. No matter how much you may prepare yourself for the day that you discover your child has used an illegal drug, it would appear that the impact is still devastating. So many thoughts are likely to go through a parent's head but inevitably the fear of progression to other drugs is one of their greatest fears.

One of the most popular myths about drugs is the belief that if you start using cannabis it will inevitably end up with you moving onto so called 'harder drugs', with you finally becoming a heroin user.  This is known as the 'gateway theory', and is frequently used in an attempt to scare young people from experimenting with a range of drugs, but most particularly cannabis.

This theory comes from studies of heroin users which show that they have almost all used cannabis at some time or another. However, it definitely doesn't mean that all cannabis users will eventually use heroin (they all most probably have used an over-the-counter painkiller at some point - could that have been the culprit?). It is important to remember that over a third of the Australian population have ever tried cannabis, whereas only a very small percentage (2%) have ever tried heroin. If the 'gateway' theory was true there should be far more heroin users in this country.

Undoubtedly experimenting with cannabis puts you at risk of coming into contact with a range of other drugs. A person who supplies cannabis may have other drugs on offer, or be able to get them without too much trouble, and this easy access to other illegal substances could result in a young person being more likely to experiment. There is also the possibility that after breaking one taboo, i.e., smoking cannabis, it is much easier to break another. In my experience though, most teenagers have 'drawn their own line in the sand' (as most adults do) and have established what drugs they're going to try and those they're not. For many it would appear that these choices are made early in their adolescence, usually based on a range of factors including parental influence. Once they've made that decision you could throw drugs at them and they still wouldn't try them.

That said, however, there is evidence that cannabis could act as an important 'stepping stone' to other drug use for some people and trying to prevent experimentation with the drug by young people for as long as possible is advised. There really are no 'definites' when it comes to drug use, but without a doubt we certainly know that the earlier a young person starts using cannabis, the greater the risk of problems in the future ...

So is there a gateway drug?

It is now believed that the environment that the young person is exposed plays a much stronger role on what drug is used, rather than a logical progression from one drug to another, as suggested by the gateway theory. That is, if it's easier for a young person to get his hands on cannabis than alcohol, then it's more likely he or she will smoke pot. This is known as the 'common liability model', that states the likelihood that the movement of use of one drug to another is not necessarily determined by the preceding use of a particular drug, but rather by the young person's individual tendencies and environmental circumstances.

Interestingly, research has shown that regular heavy alcohol use, particularly during the early teens, is possibly the strongest predictor of future illicit drug use.  Of course this does not fit into the messages that most parents want to give their children about drug use – alcohol is a legal drug, one which the vast majority of Australians use on a regular basis.  However, excessive drinking by young people causes many problems and particular patterns of use are regarded as possible indicators of future illicit drug use.

Am I saying that Carol shouldn't be worried about her daughter's cannabis use? Of course not! At the very least she is using an illegal drug and there are very real consequences if she is caught and prosecuted. But does her cannabis use mean that she is now on the road to injecting drug use? Absolutely not! For many, cannabis is the only illicit drug they will ever experiment with - that is their 'line in the sand'. That said, we mustn't forget that there are also many other risks associated with cannabis use, particularly for the young, and when things go wrong this can have a devastating impact not only on the user but also on those around them. At the same time, it is also important to remember that some people will use cannabis for a period of time, stop using for whatever reason and have no significant problems as a result of their use.

As much as people would love to make cannabis a 'black and white' issue - it isn't! It isn't 'God's sweet nectar' and won't solve all the world's problems but it isn't the 'Devil's weed' either, causing all young people to have brain damage and become heroin users. With the amount of propaganda that is put out from both sides of this long-standing argument it really is no surprise that parents are confused around cannabis ...


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