Marijuana as gateway drug – is it still one? Was it ever?

NASHUA – Janice Watson, Healthy Steps program manager at Nashua AREA Health Center, has seen a new trend developing in the lives of her young clients.

“Pot is no longer the gateway drug; the medicine cabinet is,” said Watson, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, who’s been in the field for 30 years.

From pain pills at the dentist, to further exploration of their home prescriptions, Watson said that’s been the main entrance into drug exploration for her young clients, who make up more than half of her patients dealing with drug and alcohol abuse.

Recent national studies reflect what Watson is seeing among the youth in southern New Hampshire.

Teens continue to abuse prescription drugs at a high rate, with little change seen in the past few years, according to a 2008 survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Nearly 10 percent of high school seniors reported using Vicodin in the past year, and 4.7 percent report abusing Oxycontin, both powerful opioid painkillers. In fact, seven of the top 10 drugs abused by twelfth graders in the year prior were prescribed or purchased over-the-counter, according to the study, known as the Monitoring the Future Survey.

Marijuana use among teens, on the other hand has been declining, but the drug is still widely used by that age group.

Marijuana use in the past year was reported by 10.9 percent of 8th-graders, 23.9 percent of 10th-graders, and 32.4 percent of 12th-graders.

Much has been studied about the so-called “gateway-drug phenomenon,” which asserts that once someone tries a certain drug – whether legal, like alcohol, or illegal, like marijuana – that person is likely to progress along a sequence of harder and harder drugs. Some say, once a teen tries marijuana, he or she will probably move on to cocaine, crack, methamphetamines, etc.

One recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry debunked this line of thought.

Factors like growing up in a bad neighborhood and poor parental supervision are more likely to lead to illegal drug use rather than exposure to any gateway drug, like marijuana or alcohol, the study suggested.

Some of the state’s law enforcement officers aren’t buying it, either.

Bill Quigley, the state coordinator for law enforcement’s drug evaluation and classification program, trains officers to be Drug Recognition Experts.

“It’s not fair to say heroin addicts all started out smoking marijuana,” Quigley said. “I don’t agree with that specifically. I think that ‘gateway’ concept arose in the 1960s-’70s, as a ploy of deterrence. I haven’t seen any hard facts to back that up.”

He sees marijuana as being “more socially accepted, obviously, whereas hardcore drugs are still taboo.” But, he says, “in fact, most (people that are arrested) are poly-drug users; marijuana could be one of them.”

Other local police officers fall on the side of marijuana as gateway drug, although some cite alcohol as the true first drug commonly experimented with by youth. All agree that the environment is a key factor in how and when children are drawn into drug use.

Youth and Drugs

n From 2007 to 2008, the percentage of 10th-graders reporting lifetime, past year, and past month use of any illicit drug other than marijuana declined significantly. Lifetime use decreased from 18.2 to 15.9 percent, past-year use declined from 13.1 to 11.3 percent, and past-month use decreased from 6.9 to 5.3 percent.

n Overall, the use of stimulants declined. Lifetime, past-year, and past-month amphetamine use declined among 10th-graders. Crystal methamphetamine (“ice”) use continues to decline – past-year use fell among 12th-graders, from 1.6 to 1.1 percent. Also, past-year crack cocaine use declined from 2007 to 2008 among 12th-graders, from 1.9 to 1.6 percent.

n The use of alcohol measured among 10th graders decreased. For example, past-year alcohol use by 10th-graders declined from 56.3 percent in 2007 to 52.5 percent in 2008.

n Marijuana use across the three grades surveyed has shown a consistent decline since the mid-1990s, but it appears to have leveled off. Past-year use was reported by 10.9 percent of 8th-graders, 23.9 percent of 10th-graders, and 32.4 percent of 12th-graders.

n In 2008, 15.4 percent of 12th-graders reported using a prescription drug nonmedically within the past year. This category includes amphetamines, sedatives/barbiturates, tranquilizers, and opiates other than heroin. Vicodin continues to be abused at unacceptably high levels. Many of the drugs used by 12th-graders are prescription drugs or, in the case of cough medicine, are available over the counter.