The use of medical marijuana is growing in popularity in the U.S. with more states approving the use of medical marijuana to treat a variety of ailments including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the effects of chemotherapy on cancer patients, glaucoma, nerve pain, seizure disorders, Crohn’s Disease and other conditions that diminish quality of life for many of us.
View of Medical Marijuana
The Food and Drug Administration has approved THC – the active ingredient in marijuana – to treat nausea and improve appetite in patients with other conditions. Medical marijuana is sold legally by prescription under the names Marinol (dronabinol) and Cesamet (nabilone). However, within the medical community, medical marijuana does not enjoy universal acceptance based on the belief that the use of medical marijuana will eventually lead the user to more dangerous substances like cocaine, heroin, and hallucinogens like LSD.
Early Exposure to Cannabinoids
Clinical studies on adolescent rats indicate a decrease in the receptivity of brain dopamine reward centers as teens move into adulthood. This could explain why the earlier the use of marijuana the more likely it will lead to the use of more dangerous, more potent drugs.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) points to cross-sensitization to substance abuse as the problem. THC “primes” the brain for stronger responses to other drugs. Again, clinical studies show that rats who were administered THC demonstrated heightened behavioral responses to other addictive drugs like morphine.
However, the NIDA is quick to point out that other factors must be considered when attempting to correlate THC use with the use of harder drugs.
The Role of Social Environment on Substance Abuse
There are numerous studies that are consistent with the concept that marijuana is a gateway drug. Many addicts begin their life stories with exposure to marijuana, an indicator that pot is a gateway drug.
However, scientists dispensed with the notion that marijuana is a gateway drug as far back as 1999, pointing to social environmental factors as a primary cause of turning to more harmful drugs. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences states:
“Patterns in progression of drug use from adolescence to adulthood are strikingly regular. Because it is the most widely used illicit drug, marijuana is predictably the first illicit drug most people encounter. Not surprisingly, most users of other illicit drugs have used marijuana first…
…in the sense that marijuana use typically precedes rather than follows the initiation of other illicit drug use, it is indeed a “gateway” drug. there is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”
The more likely cause of the expansion of substance abuse is the social environment in which people interact with others. Marijuana, by itself, may not lead to abuse of additional drugs. However, if your peer group uses pot, and moves on to snorting lines of coke, peer pressure kicks in, and the marijuana user is pulled along with his or her peers into abusing more and more dangerous drugs.
The Numbers of Substance Abusers
Each year, the federal government funds two expansive studies on the use of illicit drugs by the general population. Time and again, these studies prove that marijuana does not necessarily lead to the abuse of more dangerous substances.
The federal studies revealed that in 2009 2.3 million Americans had smoked marijuana. That same year, 617,000 people used cocaine and 180,000 people used heroin for the first time. This clearly demonstrates that many people smoke medical marijuana without moving on to the “harder stuff.”
Causality and Correlation in Substance Abuse Studies
Why do so many marijuana users move on to harder drugs? Is there a direct connection between marijuana use and heroin use?
There is, without doubt, a correlation between marijuana use and the abuse of more dangerous drugs, but scientists have failed to find causality between marijuana use and abuse of other dangerous drugs. Yes, there is a connection, but the cause of substance abuse has never been clearly established. Substance abusers, introduced to marijuana, are more likely to be friends with other pot smokers. And some of those members of the peer group are going to move on, establishing a more likely cause for the expansion of substance abuse.
The answer is still elusive, and the scientific community is still studying the positive uses of medical marijuana.
However, most members of the medical community have heard the anecdotal evidence of the benefits of medical marijuana, and studies that THC does alleviate certain types of pain mitigates the negative effects of chemo and improves appetites of those with eating disorders.
While state governments debate the efficacy of medical marijuana, there’s enough hard science to make the case that marijuana is not a gateway drug. However, living in a culture that accepts the use of illicit drugs enhances the likelihood of moving on to more serious drugs.
To learn more about substance abuse and treatment, contact Hawaii Island Recovery on the Big Island of Hawaii. If substance abuse has had a negative impact on your life or the lives of others, get the help you need to make life better for all.
Call: (866) 390-5070