Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


(PHOTO: ALESKEY KLINTS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: ALESKEY KLINTS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Marijuana: the Gateway Drug (to Nicotine)

• February 06, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: ALESKEY KLINTS/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests that smoking pot promotes an even more dangerous addiction.

High school stoners have all kinds of pseudo-scientific theories about the harmlessness of cannabis. You can’t smoke yourself to death, the argument goes, the way an alcoholic can drink herself to death. Unlike meth, pot is a natural gift of Mother Gaia; unlike heroin, it’s not physically addictive; and unlike cigarettes, it’s not laced with formaldehyde. Some of these ideas are valid—it’s true that fewer than 10 percent of pot smokers will become clinically addicted—while others are, ahem, rather “doobieous.”

As legalization efforts gain traction around the country, there’s new demand for hard evidence on the health science of pot. (Marijuana is now licit in Washington and Colorado, and medical marijuana is sanctioned in 16 states, plus Washington, D.C.) Parents nervously await the dinner-table conversation in which they have to explain why it’s alright for them to roll a joint, but, as with booze and lotto tickets, their seventh-grade daughter has to wait till she’s 18. It’s a tricky topic to finesse, and an even harder policy to enforce. In his work, David Sedaris describes how drug laws went from strict to lax in his family: “‘No smoking pot’ became ‘No smoking pot in the house,’ before it finally petered out to ‘Please don’t smoke any pot in the living room.’”

Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, published last month in Neuropsychopharmacology, offers parents a new argument against lighting up: exposure to THC, the primary psychoactive compound in pot, encourages nicotine dependence. In other words, marijuana may be a “gateway drug” to cigarettes, which are far more addictive, and kill far more users, than the green stuff.

Marijuana is a young man’s game: Between work, kids, and the realization that “Adult Swim” really just isn’t that funny, many of even the heaviest pot smokers give up the habit by adulthood. Conversely, smoking cigarettes, like playing tennis, is a lifelong sport: According to the CDC, cancer sticks are responsible for 443,000 American deaths annually—more than HIV, drugs and alcohol, car accidents, suicides, and murders combined. The healthcare costs associated with smoking approach $96 billion.

Researchers at the NIDA exposed rats to THC for several days, and a week later offered them the ability to self-administer nicotine. Just 65 percent of control rats became addicted to self-administering nicotine, while 94 percent of THC rats did. The nicotine had a higher “reward value” for the stoner rats, too, leading them to work harder to get it.

These findings contrasted sharply previous NIDA research into the “gateway mechanism,” where THC-exposed rats were no more likely to develop cocaine or heroin addiction than non-exposed rats. The gateway hypothesis itself is widely accepted; as any recovering addict will tell you, little highs easily lead to bigger ones. But what psychologists don’t understand is whether the gateway is primarily neurological or behavioral. That is, does a pot smoker become a heroin junkie because her brain’s pleasure centers have been rewired, or simply because her boyfriend is a drug dealer and she runs in a high-risk crowd?

The recent NIDA study is important because it demonstrates that, even if THC doesn’t promote a neurochemical gateway for heroin and cocaine addiction, it does for nicotine.

Films such as “Requiem for a Dream” and “Blow” will continue to scare the bejeezus out of teenage stoners considering experimenting with heavier stuff, but the truth is, cigarettes are the more dangerous killer.

Parents and potheads, take note.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.