Does Marijuana Lead to the Use of Other Drugs?

Man Lighting Marijuana Cigarette

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As more and more states around the U.S. decriminalize or legalize marijuana—also known as cannabis—or approve the drug for medical use, it raises many questions for scientists. Like, how safe is it? Does it lead to harder drug use?

The drug has been in use since ancient times. The earliest recorded use as a drug was 2737 BC in China. The drug made its entry to the New World in 1545 when the Spanish brought it and produced it as a commercial crop to make hemp fibers. In our modern world, many young people who smoke cannabis never progress to using other drugs, but there are some who do.

Research shows that the vast majority of high school students who do use other drugs used cannabis first.

Why Some People Try Other Drugs

The National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA) has three theories on why some people who use marijuana go on to use other drugs while some do not. Here is a closer look at their speculations:

  • When people begin using cannabis while their young brains are still developing, which can be into their early 20s, it can change the reward system of their brains. Other drugs may, in turn, become more appealing.
  • Those who use cannabis are more likely to be around others who use and sell other drugs, increasing the temptation to try those drugs.
  • Young people who are at high risk of substance misuse may use cannabis first because it is easier to get than other drugs. The same is true for cigarettes and alcohol.

Is Cannabis a Gateway Drug?

The question of whether marijuana is a gateway drug has circulated around the scientific community for many years. Of the usual gateway drugs, cannabis is mentioned typically along with alcohol and tobacco. A three-year study published in 2016 focused on people who began using cannabis before alcohol.

Researchers found that those who used cannabis experienced a higher incidence of an alcohol use disorder three years later after controlling for variables like psychiatric disorders and other substance use.

Similarly, a 2015 study analyzed lifetime cannabis users and concluded that nearly 50% of participants went on to take other "illicit drugs."

Has Cannabis Become a Problem?

For some, smoking cannabis is an occasional habit. For others, it can become a daily ritual that drags a person down. There are ways to tell if someone is addicted to cannabis and if it's adversely affecting their lives.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Marijuana.

  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Marijuana: Facts for teens.

  3. Weinberger AH, Platt J, Goodwin RD. Is cannabis use associated with an increased risk of onset and persistence of alcohol use disorders? A three-year prospective study among adults in the United States. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2016;161:363-7. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2016.01.014

  4. Secades-Villa R, Garcia-Rodríguez O, Jin CJ, Wang S, Blanco C. Probability and predictors of the cannabis gateway effect: A national study. Int J Drug Policy. 2015;26(2):135-42. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2014.07.011

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.