In my early teens, I drank. Plenty. Too much. Too often. But I avoided smoking marijuana, mainly because: a) I’d heard that pot is a “gateway drug” leading to harder drug use; and b) I’d seen what had become of my older sister—who’d smoked pot, gotten addicted to cocaine, and suffered horrible consequences.
Well, once I eventually did smoke marijuana at the age of 17, I can attest from my own experience that a month later when I was first introduced to cocaine, the “high” I’d gotten from the pot I’d smoked truly paled in comparison to the rush I got from the cocaine… and I instantaneously wanted more cocaine! In fact, within a week I was buying it in large enough quantities to sell it in smaller quantities, in order to sustain the “habit” I’d immediately begun!
It turns out there is now research that indicates, not necessarily a direct link to the “marijuana as gateway drug” concept, but that some drug experiences make other drugs more reinforcing and addicting.
In a recent article published in Addiction Policy Forum, Dr. Mark S. Gold, award-winning addiction researcher and author, points to a study describing how “cross-sensitization” occurs, referring to a person’s having extreme responses to one substance after earlier use of a different drug.
According to Gold, “This heightened responsiveness may be limited to a window of time, like puberty. But it could be something that can occur throughout the life cycle. The increased response can also contribute to health risks from later substance use, and studies have found that marijuana can lead to cross-sensitization, as can tobacco, cocaine and alcohol use.”
The research Gold cites shows specifically how marijuana plays a role in cross-sensitization, via a neurochemical pathway by which significant changes occur in the prefrontal cortex. And while the study does not conclude marijuana use is dangerous, it does, however, convey some thought-provoking notions worthy of the attention of pediatricians, child psychiatrists and parents: “Marijuana is an undeniably powerful drug, like alcohol and tobacco, changing the brain and accelerating drug-reward learning.”
It should be noted a number of differences between young people can play a role in this effect, including genetics, age, risk factors, dose and route of administration.
Also, the authors of the research (including a Nobel-Prize winning researcher), caution that, “substance use disorders do not develop from a single drug encounter, but require repeated exposures that result in enduring epigenetic and synaptic changes.”
However, this recent study does indicate marijuana plays a role in cross-sensitization, another way* in which the brain can be “hijacked,” especially in the formative ages of childhood and adolescence, when physiological and psychological development is at its peak. (*: Other studies have provided evidence demonstrating how this hijacking occurs as a result of brain-chemistry reward systems associated with eating, sex and other pleasure-related behaviors.)
The bottom line? Consideration of this study’s findings can help inform and guide parents, educators, politicians and those working in the field of drug rehabilitation for teens, going forward. With the increasingly permissive attitudes toward marijuana use, society—especially young people—will benefit by our acknowledging the powerful effects marijuana use can have in relation to the use of other drugs.
 Scherma, M., Qvist, J. S., Asok, A., Huang, S. C., Masia, P., Deidda, M., Wei, Y. B., Soni, R. K., Fratta, W., Fadda, P., Kandel, E. R., Kandel, D. B., Melas, P. A. (2020). Cannabinoid exposure in rat adolescence reprograms the initial behavioral, molecular, and epigenetic response to cocaine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(18), 9991–10002. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1920866117