When the sale of recreational marijuana became legal in my state earlier this year, I felt a bit mixed about it. On the one hand, it’s cool that adults can now legally enjoy pot for the hell of it in the same way we might enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine. On the other hand, when you’re the mom of two teenagers, knowing that pot is more accessible than ever is unsettling.
We know what regular pot use does to developing adolescent brains. Plus, cannabis has changed a lot in the last 20 to 30 years. It’s more potent, for one, and comes in a number of different forms, like edibles and vape pens, each sporting different dosages. No matter how many studies there are proving the medical virtues of cannabis – and there are many – in it’s most popular recreational form, it’s still a mind-altering drug.
As if the thought of my teens getting stupid-high isn’t enough to freak me out, I worry what smoking pot might lead to. That’s because I grew up being told pot is a gateway drug that leads straight to heroin junkie hell. According to Merriam-Webster, a gateway drug is, “a drug (such as alcohol or marijuana) whose use is thought to lead to the use of and dependence on a harder drug (such as cocaine or heroin).”
I remember the local cop coming to my 7th grade class to describe the perils and pitfalls of pot, cocaine, and heroin. He then showed us some pretty messed up slides of drunk driving accidents. The messaging was loud and clear: don’t drink and drive and, for the love of Pete, don’t smoke pot or you’ll end up strung out on the streets. If the idea was to scare the bejeezus out of us, it worked for this big-haired, Guess-jeans-wearing teen. I mostly avoided pot, thinking Bartles and James was a better choice as long as I didn’t get in a car.
Recent studies, however, show that alcohol and nicotine are actually potent gateway drugs themselves. In fact, underage drinking and cigarette smoking often precede trying pot, according to a 1999 report by The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. Not only that, but studies show that alcohol abuse is closely linked to cocaine addiction.
In a 2017 study, researchers first exposed mice to alcohol and nicotine, then observed their behavior when exposed to cocaine. The mice with prior alcohol use (they gave them booze instead of water), pressed their cocaine release lever 58 times versus 18 times for non-alcohol drinking mice in the same time period. In addition, these same cokehead mice did not stop snorting despite punishment, in this case, a shock to the foot. That’s because drinking alcohol messed with their little brains, priming them for compulsive cocaine use, aka addiction.
There are numerous studies showing the same progressive connection between booze and hard drugs, but does that mean pot doesn’t lead to hard drugs? Not necessarily. What researchers do see is that people who use cocaine, for example, have often also used pot at some point. The reverse, however, is not true: not all marijuana users have used cocaine. A 2009 survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 2.3 million people reported trying pot compared to 617,000 who tried cocaine. If you apply the gateway drug theory, the number of people trying cocaine should be much, much higher. There’s a correlation between marijuana and harder drugs, but causality is harder to prove.
I’m not saying it’s better to smoke pot than get drunk. Marijuana isn’t good for developing brains and bodies and neither is alcohol. However, drinking is more often associated with dangerous behavior than getting high. In a New York University study of teen alcohol and pot use, students reported that drinking was associated with unsafe driving, compromising relationships and feelings of regret. On the other hand, marijuana users were far less likely to report any adverse outcomes related to their use.
Because alcohol is still more socially acceptable than weed, it’s easier to come by. Hooking up with a dealer isn’t a no-brainer and dispensaries require IDs. Mom and dad’s liquor cabinet, on the other hand, merely requires stealth and the wherewithal to refill the vodka bottle with water.
The bottom line is, there’s no good choice here. What’s more important than whatever mind-altering substance teenagers use is finding out why they’re using it. Biological, environmental and situational factors all play a role when it comes to drug use and addiction. Is your teen using pot because he can’t deal with school stress? Is your daughter drinking because she thinks that will make her popular? Is there a history of alcohol or drug abuse in your family?
Recreational pot might be legal in 9 states, but don’t let that distract you from keeping an eye on your kid’s access to booze. The research shows alcohol is a more potent “gateway drug” than pot, so let’s keep having the drinking conversation (not lecture) with our teens, as well as the marijuana talk. They’ll probably roll their eyes, say next to nothing and scuttle away to their rooms as soon as we let them, but don’t underestimate the power of our words. The research shows they’re listening.