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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

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 …

Looking for information or support services on alcohol or drugs?

If you or a friend or family member needs assistance in this area, Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) are available in every state and territory. Each of these are each staffed by trained professionals who can help with your query and provide confidential advice or refer you to an appropriate service in your area.

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