Part 2- Gateway Substances
Owners of pizza parlours and convenience stores the world over, agree. Marijuana is definitely a gateway substance.
With that out of my system, my first area of exploration is, I will admit, based on an anecdotal conversation with a former addict of alcohol. In talking about this, he cited both the addiction potential of cannabis as well as it’s status as a so-called Gateway drug. For those unfamiliar with the term, it essentially refers to any substance that is thought to be a stepping stone towards more potent substances. Even that description seems extraordinarily nuanced, given that I’ve never seen the concept utilized outside the context of cannabis. Well, aside from in my past explorations of the topic of drugs.
When I consider the concept of a Gateway substance, several things come to mind. Interestingly, almost none of them involve the consumption of marijuana. In one case, it involves the procurement of the drug, however.
I will start with something that has been apparent to me for a long time (albeit anecdotally). The first drug that I considered as a gateway substance has always been alcohol. This is based around personal experience with various intoxication levels of both substances, and knowing how these don’t differ much from the common experience. Marijuana tends to induce a relaxed mindset (though paranoia and bad trips can happen). On the other hand, alcohol tends to greatly reduce one’s inhibitions in many situations. Not to mention the well-known phenomenon of magnifying underlying personalities (most noticeable when it comes to aggressive types). A concept poked fun at by a fridge magnet that I picked up in Nashville that reads “Instant Jackass. Just Add Beer”.
While the loosening up trait of alcohol can be seen as useful for less outgoing people (like myself, frankly), the trade-off of this is apparent in the last paragraph. Not to mention, the very reason why I have always listed alcohol as Gateway drug #1. Can these chemically reduced inhibitions lead to people trying even more potent drugs?
Marijuana tends to be the next step up from alcohol, but what about beyond this?
Here, I indeed acknowledge that there does seem to be a hierarchy of sorts when it comes to Gateway intoxicants. And Marijuana does indeed seem to have a place on the hierarchy. Where I deviate from most people, however, is where on the hierarchy I place marijuana. While most people have been conditioned to see marijuana as step #1, it is typically step 2 for me (if not 3, or even 4!).
Marijuana as step 2 was just explained. When it comes to step 3, I have to start one rung below alcohol, at caffeine. Whilst it has always been present in one form of food or beverage or another forever, the emergence of energy drinks in the past 20ish years has solidified their place in the hierarchy. Certainly so, after I thought I was having a heart attack after pounding back 2 Redbull’s in the span of an hour and a half at an old job. Don’t get me wrong, I still drink them on occasion. Just . . . not more than 2 in a day.
I bring this up on account to the continued marijuana is not a benign argument, as vocalized by layman and experts (including some MD’s) alike. Indeed, this shouldn’t be a marijuana-selling point. However, it’s hard for me not to think that highly caffeinated energy drinks aren’t being perceived as being far more benign than marijuana, just on account to how they are retailed. Be it from a dealer or behind an age limit, marijuana retail has always had an err of caution to it.
Energy drinks . . . not so much.
A brilliant example of this is the types of events and people that these companies tend to sponsor. Generally, extreme sporting events and athletes at the top of their game. Back when George St Pierre was in his UFC heyday, he was sponsored by NOS energy. Something that bothered me at the time, being that I doubted someone in such peak physical condition would have a place in that regiment for highly surgery and caffeinated sugar water.
In an old job, I once limited a teenager to purchasing just 4 of 12 energy drinks be put on the counter. I didn’t have to do this, by law. Had I sold the beverages to the teen and something happened, I (and my employer) would likely not be liable. But even so, such is a flimsy excuse reminiscent to that of a pharma company that accidentally addicts millions of its patient customers.
Either way, caffeine is my typical Gateway #1 drug for good reason. But having said that, it is really the first potential gateway substance? Or is there another substance that is even more prominent than caffeine?
What about sugar?
Though it is often paired with caffeine when consumed (be it in coffee, soda, or energy drinks), it’s consumption does not mandate the presence of caffeine. It is well known that food companies use sugar (and to a smaller degree, salt) to make all kinds of food products irresistible. Where things get fuzzy, however, is where the line between irresistible and addictive lies.
In fact, even this little thought experiment is filled with uncertainty. Based mainly on the uncertainty as to whether sugar (salt?) could or should be considered to be a drug. Can a substance which is not a drug still retain truly addictive properties? More on the topic on which I had originally set out on, can a non-drug be a gateway substance to more pharmacologically potent substances?
For the sake of this paper, my consideration of sugar is indeed, just a thought experiment. For the time being, I consider Caffeine to be gateway #1.
Having said that, however, there now exists some new substances on the market of which are comparatively as easy to obtain as both caffeine AND unregulated marijuana.
Both bath salts (or synthetic marijuana) and vaping solutions are becoming more and more popular within the younger demographics. This could skew this entire Gateway hierarchy (or add more branches than the traditional single one).
Another substance that I am completely overlooking which may also play a part in this matrix (though increasingly less so on account to flavouring bans and vaping) is tobacco (nicotine). Does this fit into this paradigm, or is it it’s own thing? Does smoking cigarettes make one more likely to smoke weed, or is that mostly just a consequence of social connections?
In any case, whether or not there truly are Gateway substances or drugs, the scope has to be more encompassing than of just marijuana. On account of this, I have broken this section of the long form up into several sections so as to explore some of these branches in as much detail as I can.
This next thought of how marijuana could play the part of a gateway drug actually involves its absence within a given marketplace. Or to put it another way, it’s lack of availability through the same underworld channels which have plenty of other types of substances to unload. I will state up front that, yes, this is also somewhat based around anecdotal observations within my life experience.
Though it has been years since I have last consumed marijuana in any way (I don’t even really drink alcohol all that often), I still remember the conversations with the drug dealers. Notmy conversations with the drug dealers, mind you (I was never more into the scene than passively in social situations). More like overhearing friends and acquaintances calling up their given handful of contacts retailing their desired herb. Though they more often than not had no Green to offer, Rock, Snow or Ice was never hard to find. For everyone outside the lingo, in order of appearance:
This time of my life was a time of change and experimentation.
To put it in context, I had lived most of my previous 16 or 17 years with the mindset towards drugs (and of course, those of whom take them) that is not unlike a current day Jeff Sessions. I had absorbed that drugs were bad news, as were the people that did them. Though one of my closest friends was a user (pot smoker. I use the word because my ignorant mind auto equated with a crack smoker), he fit the mould of what such a person looked like in my mind. As such, my inner narrative wasn’t questioned. That is until I found out that another fairly close friend of mine (of whom DIDN’T fit the profile) was also a regular dope user.
In the coming year or so, this would happen once more with another close friend. Interestingly, the same one who got me into smoking by way of little flavoured cigarillos. This was around 2006. Unsurprisingly, movements towards bans on flavoured tobacco products started in 2009, with bans starting to roll out across Canada in 2010. And as of October 1st, 2017, menthol products are also banned across Canada.
Quite the downer that is, considering a part of my pain had just activated with the thought “I am REALLY craving a menthol smoke now!”. Shucks.
Either way, this was also around the time when I would leave home and live with a roommate for the first time. A roommate who enjoyed smoking marijuana, drinking and otherwise partying. Even despite living here, it took some time before I finally get the courage to try the stuff for the first time. After which it actually became a desired experience.
It was here, where I overheard the phone calls. Observing my roommate (or someone else present at the time) cycle through their list of dealers looking unsuccessfully for marijuana. It made me think back to my previously sheltered existence, seeing articles in the paper or stories on the evening news of our local police force boasting about busting dealers and confiscating tens of pounds of weed. The kids are safer because now there is less marijuana available for them to buy on the street, they said.
Meanwhile, in an apartment filled with young stoners, phone calls to many dealers uncover the availability of almost every other common drug BUT marijuana.
So, did we find some?
Yes. But not before being offered a laundry list of other more harmful substances first. Be it Ice, Snow, Rock, or good ole E. Or as it seems to be called these days, Molly. Though THAT may well be something else entirely (I’ve been out of the loop for close to a decade).
Either way, in this instance, marijuana could very well serve as a Gateway substance. However, if my hunch (as insinuated) is correct, the reason for this status IS the very war being waged on its distribution in the first place. Prohibition should have been an excellent example of what happens when you attempt to artificially smash a market with a shitload of money left of the table. In an ideal world, no, teens should not be smoking marijuana. But since we don’t live in an ideal world, is having them resort to meth, crack or cocaine any better?
You can not claim to be for the safety of children if you can not answer that question honestly.
Thankfully, the majority here in Canada have finally gotten the memo and this problem has started to be dealt with. Granted, we are very early in the transition process (as of this writing, it hasn’t even been a year since legalization). The bulk of marijuana sales are still happening through illegal channels, thus kids are (in theory) still not safe. However, the saturation of fentanyl, methamphetamine and other more powerful drugs tends to (rightfully) occupy more police time than marijuana. Thus, whilst not ideal, the teens might not be as vulnerable to something much worse than ANY strength of cannabis.
In time, I suspect that the modern day underground Cannabis economy will go the same way as the underground alcohol economy after the cessation of prohibition. Price, variety, and primarily convenience will eventually drive the majority of consumers to legal sources. Without the demand, all the problems that came with the illegal suppliers go away along with their economic viability.
Unfortunately, I suspect that this will just mean many will make the switch to producing or selling other substances without legal competition. This is an unfortunate side effect of legalization. However, it is also a sign that simple marijuana legalization really doesn’t go far enough.
Which is why I am of the opinion that ALL drugs ought to be legalized. Or at the very least, decriminalized. Indeed, that is a very bitter pill for even a legal weed accepting society to swallow. However, it is not without precedent.
A good methodology that I would follow would be the to completely decriminalize everything, then transition the money that was once designated for the elimination of drugs towards treatment. Rather than treating addictions (and whatever underlies that symptom) by just rounding up the junkies and throwing them in the slammer, let us show our fellow human beings some care and compassion. And when I say treatment, I don’t necessarily mean your typical faith-based 12 step program either.
Should they play a part in the solution to the rampant fentanyl, methamphetamine, and other drug epidemics?
Should that be the ONLY option that is well funded?
The system of which I was eluding to earlier (decriminalize everything, focus on treatment) is actually the current status quo of Portugal. Having found itself in the midst of multiple drug epidemics at the same time during the 80s on account to its geographical location (among other economic and demographic factors), the nation found itself with a very serious problem in need of drastic action. And drastic action was indeed the action that the nation’s leaders took.
And it would seem that they were successful.
Since decriminalization, lifetime prevalence rates (which measure how many people have consumed a particular drug or drugs over the course of their lifetime) in Portugal have decreased for various age groups.
-students in 7th–9th grades (13–15years old) – 14.1 per-cent in 2001 to 10.6 percent in 2006.
–10th–12th grades (16–18 years old) –27.6 percent in 2001 (the year of decriminalization) to 21.6 percent in 2006.
In fact, for those two critical groups of youth (13–15 years and 16–18 years), prevalence rates have declined for virtually every substance since decriminalization (see Figures 4 and 5).33
Interestingly, that white paper was published by Glenn Greenwald for (or VIA, however these things work) The CATO Institute. Though I’m not a big fan of either entity, but data is data.
And finally, we come to the darkest corner of the Gateway drug rabbit hole. Opioids. Poppies on steroids.
By now, it’s safe to say that Opioid addiction is a pretty common phenomenon in all corners of the western world. A big part of this prevalence I suspect lies with manufacturers misinforming doctors about the addiction potential of these medications. This no doubt causing otherwise good MD’s to make bad calls, thus turning a routine back or neck injury into a slippery slope into addiction hell.
In the places where greed and medicine are legally allowed to coexist, the former often became a big factor in the choice of prescription. Be it little perks or huge paydays, the end results are often the same. The patient is the loser.
Thus, my final contestant for the Gateway Drugs competition should be obvious. In fact, blatantly apparent. All you have to do is listen to one of the hundreds of stories originating from people that ran out of legitimate prescriptions, only to look to the black market to keep getting the fix they now needed.
No, not the fix they desired, like every marijuana smoker. I am indeed saying the fix they needed. Because chemical dependency is a very different beast than marijuana addiction, which is thought to be less chemical dependency than it is a physiological dependency (a characteristic also shared by Nicotine, Cocaine, Methamphetamine and some others, interestingly enough). This is not to say that long term users of any of the above substances won’t run into withdrawal symptoms (fatigue, depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and trouble eating are common). It’s more that those withdrawal symptoms tend to be much less severe (or in some cases, life-threatening) than those related to substances such as opioids and alcohol.
I must now admit defeat. Everything I said was wrong. It’s time for me to go to medical school because I don’t know a fucking thing about Cannabis, cannabinoids, addiction or how gateway substances work.
Well, sort of.
As it turns out, there does indeed seem to be a connection between cannabis use and the development of what researchers term alcohol use disorders. As shown in some studies, those who used cannabis without a previous alcohol use disorder tended to end up with the condition, and those with the condition previously tended to have it get more intense. Scientists hypothesize that the condition is due to a process of the cannabinoids priming the brain (known as cross-sensitization) both for enhanced effects of further cannabinoid use, as well as that for other drugs.
Whilst many readers may be tempted to hop out of their rolly office chairs and shout “HA!”, I encourage you to wait. The results of these studies not only show that most of those users don’t move onto heavier drugs (unlike prescription opioids!), but also that cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and Nicotine are also shown to demonstrate a similar response.
It should also be noted that the source above states what would seem to be obvious . . . people that are vulnerable to drug use are most likely to stick with what is easy to obtain, and that social interactions with other drug users tend to influence these choices. Or to put it in the way of every guidance councillor ever:
“Beware the follies of peer pressure! Just say no!”
Having said that, I can’t help but think that my life is a perfect example case of such. Well, sort of. No one has ever truly pressured me into doing anything I didn’t want to do (well, short of dragging my ass into work far more often than is healthy). Every previously defined red line crossed was indeed voluntary. None the less, without having the right people with the right connections present, I may well have not had the chances that I did. As it happened, however, not only were they properly connected, but they were also people I felt comfortable around.
Though they (and really, I) didn’t know it at the time, this may well have been the inspiration for my truly open mind. Without them, I may well have turned out to be just another Jeff Sessions clone.