Op Ed: Marijuana is a Gateway drug, but only because it‘s illegal.

May 13, 2017

I was 16 years old the first time I tried marijuana.

It was the Friday night before Thanksgiving break when into my boarding school dorm room came some of the “cool kids” from up the hall. Kids that I desperately wanted to be friends with.

My room had strategically placed windows, a box fan, and ample Febreze so, in exchange for use of this great space, they offered me a few puffs off their pipe. After minimal coaxing, I accepted their offer. We laughed all night and I ate an entire can of Pringles. It was a great bonding experience with people that would eventually become some of my best friends.

In those first 16 years of my life, I had never broken a single law. (Ok I definitely shoplifted a superball from Jacks Corner Store when I was 9 but other than that I was straight-laced. Pinky swear.) I followed all the rules and, for the most part, did as I was told. I knew I was a good kid, and I took pride in that.

Then, one day, I puffed on a pipe, laughed with my friends, and became a criminal.

Don’t worry! I didn’t suddenly drop out of school and become a pot-smoking hobo-vagabond. In fact, not too much changed. The next day I went to class, baseball practice, did my homework, and went to bed just like any other day. But one thing had changed.

A switch had flipped in my young and impressionable mind. After smoking that bowl, I was no longer the goody-two-shoes with a pristine track record that I was the day before and, once that was gone, so was my drive to maintain it. In the outside world, nothing changed, but in my head, I was a different person. I was a person that had “done drugs.”

So, when the opportunity came for me to try another illegal drug, I didn’t have a reputation to worry about. I had already “done drugs”, so what was the big deal with doing another one? (Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the logic of the 16-year-old mind.)

9 months later I tried cocaine for the first time.

Whoa! Look at that gateway drug go! Drew made it 16 years without touching an illegal substance and in 9 short months, he was already up to 2. What happened?

Marijuana served as a gateway drug for me, but not in the way you might expect.

Here’s how most people understand the gateway effect: Kid tries marijuana. Kid likes the way it makes him feel. Kid smokes more marijuana. Eventually his tolerance builds up and he stops getting the same “buzz” he once did. Kid now looks for something stronger. Something that will give him the high he’s now craving and thus begins his downward spiral into drug addiction. 

I can’t speak for everyone, but this line of thinking is pretty far flung from my own at 16 years old. I wasn’t craving marijuana at 16 and nor have I ever since. It just doesn’t work that way (at least for me).

Also, I think it is common for people unfamiliar with controlled substances to assume that the proverbial “high” one gets is equal across all those substances. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD… they’re all just different ways to get you “high.” A great example of this came from our Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 


“I am astonished to hear people suggest that we can solve our heroin crisis by legalizing marijuana—so people can trade one life-wrecking dependency for another that’s only slightly less awful


Now, this isn’t really the place to dive into the differences between the effects of marijuana and cocaine, so here’s a quick analogy. 

Assuming that someone who enjoys marijuana is also likely to crave cocaine is like saying the owner of a VW Bus is likely to buy a Ferrari. Yes, both people use motor vehicles and probably enjoy the time spent in their vehicle, but it does not necessarily mean they use them for the same purposes or in the same manner. Two different people. Two different preferences. Ok, analogy over. Moving along.

16-year-old Drew didn’t try cocaine because he was craving an upgraded or more intense high. In fact, he wasn’t craving anything. 

What it came down to was that I had already crossed a line. I tried cocaine because I had already made the transition from “law-abiding citizen” to “drug-using criminal.” After that line was crossed, the decision to try another “drug” was much easier to make. I had a fun and safe experience with marijuana, so why shouldn’t I expect the same from some other drug?

My argument is this:

Making a big stink about marijuana being a “dangerous drug” only spurs more interest from kids. Take a look at Europe and their relationship with alcohol. Rates of alcoholism, underage drinking, and DUIs are far lower there than in the US. The primary reasons for this?


1) the drinking age is lower and

2) their culture doesn’t make such a fuss about alcohol.



European kids are raised in a world where drinking a beer isn’t such a big deal so, when they finally turn 18, they go to the pub, have a few pints with their friends, and take a cab home. 

Compare that to the US where I have witnessed firsthand what happens when kids who have been told “alcohol is bad, you must never drink it” show up to their first college party. They’ve never had a drop in their life and are immensely curious. Combine that with a novel lack of supervision, in a setting where alcohol is plentiful, and they will take that opportunity by the horns, consume to gross excess, and end up in the hospital.


Don’t get me wrong, by no means am I advocating for kids to be using marijuana or any other illegal substance while underage. What I’m saying is that we need to reexamine our views on marijuana and the way we talk about it with our kids. Just like regions of our country who take the “abstinence only” approach to sex ed. have the highest teen pregnancy rates, grouping marijuana into the category of “dangerous drugs you should never do” and never speaking of it again does not work.

My closing thought is this: If marijuana had been comparable to cigarettes, alcohol, or some other more socially accepted drug, I would never have made that transition I mentioned earlier. I would have understood that even though I had tried a bit of marijuana, I was still a good kid. I wasn’t a criminal. And that cocaine is in no way likenable to marijuana.

If I were to have maintained those beliefs, then, when presented with a legitimately dangerous and addictive drug like cocaine, I might have said “no thanks, I don’t do drugs.”

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