Understanding Gateway Drugs Today 


Have you heard that “marijuana is a gateway drug?”  This is true for many reasons. One of those reasons is because heroin and cannabinoids (like THC - the cannabinoid that intoxicants in marijuana) run on the same receptor system in the brain - the endocannabinoid receptor system.  If the use of marijuana primes your particular brain to want more, heroin may be “the more” you turn to.

BUT a more general understanding of addiction and brain science today has revealed that there are 3 major gateway drugs for adolescents:


  • All 3 of these drugs are addictive and teen brains are especially vulnerable to their harm - all 3 affect brain plasticity and proper neural function

  • Statistically we are finding that the use of one increases the use of the other two as well as other illicit drugs. Conversely, the absence of using one, reflects an absence in using the others.  See the data below from the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)*

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* The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is directed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), an agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).  Data compiled by DuPont, Han, Shea, Madras. Preventive Medicine 113: 68-73, compiled 2018. [Graph prepared by BK Madras, C Shea].  Past month use of alcohol, marijuana and illicit drugs, among youth aged 12-17, (past month adjusted prevalence; n = 17,000)