Home Science Myth vs. Science: Will Cannabis Lead To Addiction or Harder Drugs?

Myth vs. Science: Will Cannabis Lead To Addiction or Harder Drugs?

One of the primary arguments against cannabis reform is addiction.

If addictive substances wreak havoc on society, why legalize another one?

While there is no doubt that this question is legitimate, it is grounded in some unfortunate assumptions.

For decades, consumers have been taught that cannabis is a “gateway drug” that can lead to the use of harder drugs.

But, will cannabis actually lead to addiction or harder drugs?

Here’s what you need to know about cannabis and addiction.

Will cannabis lead to addiction?

The short answer to this question is no, cannabis will not lead to addiction or harder drugs for most people.

However, cannabis addiction is a reality that affects a small percentage of people, a fact that should not be ignored.

Estimates suggest that between 9 and 10 percent of cannabis consumers develop cannabis addiction.

Remarkably, cannabis has been found to have the lowest rates of addiction among several common substances.

In comparison, 15 percent of consumers develop alcoholism.

A whopping 32 percent of people become addicted to nicotine.

Another 15 percent of people become addicted to cocaine, and 17 become addicted to heroin.

This suggests that for at least 91 percent of people who try the herb at least once, cannabis does not lead to addiction.

To add fuel to these claims, another 2015 study published in Scientific Reports analyzed various substances and compared the risks of various substances, including tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis.

In the study, they examined each substance by looking at the lethal doses compared with the average human intake.

After crunching the numbers, cannabis was found to be low-risk, with a high margin of safety.

Not only is cannabis one of the least addictive illicit substances, but it is arguably the safest to consume.

What happens when you’re addicted to cannabis?

An addiction can be defined as a compulsive need or a habit-forming activity.

Generally speaking, an addiction is a harmful activity that lowers your quality of life and can interfere with daily functioning.

To be diagnosed with addiction, a medical professional will evaluate whether or not your behaviors meet enough specific criteria to be labeled with a substance abuse disorder.

According to the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-V), a person can be defined as having cannabis use disorder when they meet a mere 2 of 11 criteria listed in the manual.

Some of these criteria include:

  • Cannabis is taken in larger amounts for longer than intended
  • A consumer develops a tolerance to cannabis
  • A consumer experiences withdrawal effects after suddenly abstaining from cannabis

Unfortunately, these criteria can be problematic.

Given these definitions, some medical cannabis patients may qualify as having a “cannabis use disorder” even though they consume the herb for therapeutic benefit and as a way to improve their quality of life.

It’s also important to note that addiction and dependence may be defined differently.

Addiction is often seen as a both a behavioral problem and a physical dependence, a craving for something that cannot be ignored.

With dependence, a person may not have a psychological drive to consume something.

However, they may still feel some signs of physical withdrawal with sudden abstinence.

For example, because regular coffee drinkers experience physical withdrawals after cutting back, some experts argue that “caffeine dependence” should be considered a substance of abuse.

What is cannabis withdrawal?

For people who do experience cannabis withdrawal, it’s about as mild as caffeine withdrawal.

Side effects of cannabis withdrawal could include:

  • Headache
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of appetite
  • Low mood
  • Anxiety

The biggest withdrawal symptom a person may experience are the resurfacing of medical symptoms for which they are using cannabis in the first place.

It important to keep in mind that the more cannabis you consume, the more likely you are to experience the side effects of withdrawal.

Compounds in the cannabis plant replace.

When the body has grown used to the constant input of the plant (tolerance) and then you stop supplementing, it must adjust to once again manufacturing its own cannabis-like molecules.

Research suggests that the body begin to bounce back from tolerance quite rapidly.

Thus far, there are no concrete signs that cannabis tolerance causes any sort of long-term damage.

In fact, tolerance may even be beneficial for those with certain medical conditions that require higher doses of cannabis.

Will cannabis lead to harder drugs?

Many school children have heard it time and time again: cannabis is a gateway to heroin or other hard drugs.

The idea here is that cannabis opens the door to drug abuse, providing consumers with their first taste of addictive behaviors.

Though the gateway theory has now been taught in schools for decades, the research just isn’t there to back up this assumption.

The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences addressed this back in 1999, stating:

“There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of cannabis are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”

According to Americans for Safe Access, a group which lobbies for safe access to medical and adult-use cannabis, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently took references to the gateway theory off of their webpages.


After over 30 years of the war on drugs, there is no conclusive evidence that the gateway theory is accurate.

While it is true that many who have tried cannabis also try other substances, this does not mean that cannabis was the sole trigger for experimentation for harder drugs.

A study conducted by Treatment4Addiction, a group dedicated to connecting patients with treatment, discovered that 60 percent of cannabis consumers go on to try harder drugs.

While this may sound shocking, this study ultimately found that cannabis was not the ultimate “gateway drug”.

Rather, a whopping 78 percent of those who tried alcohol at least once went on to try additional substances.

This research is corroborated by another study published in 2011 in the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence. The study cites evidence that a particular “order of initiation” is typical when it comes to illicit substances.

This order of initiation often begins with alcohol and tobacco, followed by cannabis and possibly harder drugs.

However, the fact that these substances are often consumed in a particular order does not mean that any particular one is a “gateway drug”.

Rather, the study authors conclude that additional underlying factors likely contribute to an individual’s likelihood to continue to experiment with hard drugs, not a particular drug itself.

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