Editor’s note: This commentary is by John Klar, who is a certified Vermont recovery coach, attorney, and pastor of the First Congregational Church of Westfield.
For decades, the myth has been echoed that marijuana is “the gateway drug,” the key that opens the door to experimentation and eventual dependence on “harder” drugs. Perhaps this is not a myth at all, and reefer is a stepping stone that opens gateways — but not for the reasons we presume.
The famous mantra of statistics is that “connection does not prove causation.” Just because those who first smoke cannabis go on to use other drugs does not “prove” that weed caused those subsequent steps. Nicotine or alcohol use also generally precedes progression toward stronger substances, as does sugar. Our pot-vilifying culture tends to filter those other drugs out of the analysis when linking “the devil’s lettuce” to “smack” or “junkies.”
But what of that primordial master of dopamine-stimulators: sugar? Increasing evidence reveals that Tricks really aren’t for kids at all; that Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes aren’t gre-e-a-t; that toddlers literally go coocoo for Cocoa Puffs; that Rice Krispies snap, crackle and pop our children’s neurological wiring. This partial list of corporate pushers reveals where the foundation of much addiction begins in our industrial society. Instant gratification, and the sacrifice of quality nutrition for reduced cost, have crippled generations of Americans by tampering with their brains — from infancy.
Federal laws limit corporate advertising directed toward children because of their recognized susceptibility. Little have we realized how extraordinarily vulnerable the developing brain is to sugar, which “… is a natural pain reliever in children”: “Scientific evidence shows that children not only have a stronger preference for sugar than adults – but that sweet-tooth is hardwired from Day One.”
Studies of the human brain suggest that “at the neurobiological level, the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward appear to be more robust than those of cocaine….” Because the effects of a “sugar high” do not equate to the “buzz” or intoxication of illegal drugs (or legal drugs like nicotine or alcohol), Americans readily dismiss the obvious role of sugars in the conditioning of young minds toward addiction. But scientifically, the connection is glaringly apparent: “… the link between sugar and addictive behavior is tied to the fact that, when we eat sugar, opioids and dopamine are released.”
The consequences of our society’s love affair with sugar is evident all around us — in obesity, diabetes, and heart disease statistics. Many people eat sugar not only from biological compulsion but in response to stressors such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. Binge eating, withdrawal symptoms, seeking sugar as trained subconscious reward (from infancy) — all of these things mirror the human behaviors associated with drug addiction.
Modern research sheds increasing light on Cheech and Chong “getting the munchies.” Some 75% of Americans consume excess amounts of sugar. Into that potion are added alcohol, illicit drugs, opioids. Not surprisingly, newly sober addicts and alcoholics suffer intense sugar cravings during early recovery and risk becoming “sugar addicts.” This is because “[w]hen an individual eats sugar, the brain produces huge surges of dopamine.”
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In an extensive examination of the effects of sugar on the brain, one 2007 article concluded that “… intermittent access to sugar can lead to behavior and neurochemical changes that resemble the effects of a substance of abuse.” That study recounted numerous aspects of sugar consumption which mirror addictive behaviors, including: binging, craving, withdrawal, “incubating” (“the motivation to obtain sugar appears to “incubate,” or grow, with the length of abstinence”), and cross-sensitization with other drugs of abuse.
This latter sugar connection merits focus:
“Numerous studies have found that sensitization to one drug can lead not only to hyperactivity, but also to subsequent increased intake of another drug or substance. … We refer to this phenomenon as ‘consummatory cross-sensitization.’ In the clinical literature, when one drug leads to taking another, this is known as a ‘gateway effect’. It is particularly noteworthy when a legal drug (e.g. nicotine) acts as a gateway to an illegal drug (e.g. cocaine)”.
It’s a stretch to blame the ’60s hippies for a drug gateway, when the ’60s suburban moms were pumping their kiddies full of concentrated sugar in lieu of food. Clearly, recent generations were prepped to consume bigger and stronger dopamine stimulators, years before they were old enough to roll joints. And when those joints were rolled, the ganja amplified that preexisting (legal) sugar fix.
The federal government agrees with this assessment of marijuana:
“… the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, “harder” substances. Also, cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs and are, like marijuana, also typically used before a person progresses to other, more harmful substances. … It is important to note that other factors besides biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in a person’s risk for drug use. An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs.”
This logical perspective is echoed by a persuasive psychological argument:
“…it’s marijuana’s legal status, not its chemical interactions with the brain at all, that is the gateway. … Once the law is broken and you’ve bought weed from a drug dealer, you can now interact with people who will have access to other illicit drugs. That makes it more likely that you will break the law again and that you will go on to try other substances, because they are now available.”
If this theory proves accurate, marijuana has indeed been the dreaded “gateway drug” — not because of its hypnotic properties, but because it was criminalized, replete with mandatory jail terms for mere possession. The irony would then be that by legalizing pot, America would eliminate a path toward addiction to hard drugs.
As this psychologist explains it:
”As marijuana becomes legal in essentially all states for medical use and is accepted in more and more states recreationally, it is entirely possible that this whole Gateway theory will simply no longer be relevant. Getting cannabis will no longer involve illegal action, meaning most marijuana users will not have broken the law. I believe this single change will prove to be incredibly important for use of “harder” drugs. No doubt, the next substance in line will now become the “gateway” as its use will be the entryway into the black market of drugs.”
Additional studies suggest that it may have been madness to deny reefer to those in pain: chronic opioid use creates hypersensitivity to pain not caused by cannabis; and patients who employ pot as a first-line pain therapy may be less likely to rely on (and become addicted to) narcotics. Thus, marijuana may be the gateway away from opioid dependency.
Sugar is likely to remain legal. Perhaps it is the gateway culprit. But seeking scapegoats upon which to foist that label is unproductive in rationally responding to the underlying problems. It’s much like trying to attack a particular style or caliber of firearm, rather than determine why our youth are primed to kill.
There are numerous gateways to addiction. The challenge is finding the pathways out.