New Studies Prove Marijuana Is a Dangerous Gateway: Why Today’s Pot May Be Priming Young Brains for Harder Drugs

New Studies Prove Marijuana Is a Dangerous Gateway: Why Today’s Pot May Be Priming Young Brains for Harder Drugs

Karen Perry and Gary Mendell both buried their sons after problems they say began when their boys started casually smoking marijuana.

Perry, who lives in Florida, says her son began smoking pot on the golf course during practice rounds after golf camp, smoking with the other boys from camp during his sophomore year of high school.

A couple of years later, he quit playing golf even though he was good at the sport. He lost weight, started socializing more and on the surface appeared to be happier than he used to be. “I thought he was growing up,” Perry recalls.

In truth, he had begun using all sorts of drugs, including popping pills used to treat ADHD, which he did not have. In the end, he died of an overdose, Perry says. Cocaine, heroin, alcohol and prescription drugs were all detected in his system.

Mendell says his son, who had been diagnosed with depression, also smoked pot as a teenager. Eventually his drug use progressed to Xanax, a prescription drug for anxiety, and then to opiates. Mendell’s son did become sober, but ultimately he took his own life.

Both young men were in their early 20s when they died.

Perry and Mendell have since founded programs aimed at keeping kids off drugs. Perry is the executive director of the NOPE Task Force, and Mendell is the founder of Shatterproof in New York City. While they say opiates are currently the biggest problem among children and young adults, they insist that pot is a dangerous gateway that can lead people to harder drugs.

Colorado Pot a Far Cry from Cheech and Chong

Research on how pot affects the brains of children still is emerging. While teens and young adults don’t die of marijuana overdoses, some mix all sorts of drugs together, and many graduate to other controlled substances.

Teens and young adults predisposed to addiction, whether from genetics or environmental factors, can end up developing a variety problems from early pot use.

For example, new research shows that “early exposure to cannabinoids in adolescent rodents decreases the reactivity of brain dopamine reward centers later in adulthood,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “To the extent that these findings generalize to humans, this could help explain early marijuana initiates’ increased vulnerability for drug abuse and addiction to other substances later in life that has been reported by most epidemiological studies. It is also consistent with animal experiments showing THC’s ability to ‘prime’ the brain for enhanced responses to other drugs.” 1

Therein lies the rub: Today’s pot isn’t the kind that pop culture figures, such as Cheech and Chong, used to make jokes about. THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that produces the euphoria, is generally much higher in today’s varieties of weed.

In findings presented last year at a meeting of the American Chemical Society, scientist Andy LaFrate tested 600 samples of marijuana circulating in Colorado.


THC Levels of 1975 compared to 2015

While marijuana from three decades ago had THC levels well below 10 percent, today’s samples show an average THC level of 18.7 percent, he says. Some even exceed 30 percent.2

That means the “priming” that youngsters are getting from each puff is far more powerful, potentially decreasing reactivity in the brain’s dopamine reward centers more quickly.

Not only that, but recent research shows that many young people are taking this potent pot and further intensifying THC levels by smoking it in so-called “dabs”—a concentrated resin form of THC. A study by professors at Yale showed that among more than 3,800 Connecticut high school students surveyed, one in five had used e-cigarettes to smoke marijuana.3 The researchers added that this method of consumption helps disguise the pungent marijuana smell from adults.

Why We Really Don’t Know Much About Marijuana

Some teens have actually made videos of themselves smoking dabs and have posted these videos on sites like YouTube. In many of them, dabbers begin talking nonsensically before they eventually stop speaking altogether. In some, people who smoke dabs turn pale and freeze, unable to move or speak while their friends laugh and point.

Mendell says the videos are proof of how powerful marijuana, especially in dab form, can be. He notes that, after this visual evidence, there really shouldn’t be any question about the fact that marijuana can cause psychosis.

Research has shown this to be true 4, but specific research on what marijuana actually does to people is extremely limited because the federal government controls the pot supply that researchers may use in their studies. Even though marijuana is legal for medical and/or recreational use in several states, the federal government still considers it a controlled substance, so doctors and scientists must get their supply from the federal government, which classifies marijuana as a Schedule I substance, ranked more dangerous than Schedule II drugs like cocaine 5. Further, the marijuana used for scientific research can take many years for doctors and scientists to obtain. So long, in fact, that they routinely abandon research projects.

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Meanwhile, new strains are being cultivated for medicinal use for which little to no scientific research exists. The strains are being bred to treat different conditions, much like different prescription medications are used for different medical conditions.

Different strains have different ratios of THC to CBD, another active ingredient in marijuana. In an interview with Healthline News, Dr. Dustin Sulak explained that compounds in the plant called terpenes impact how THC and CBD work together. “So you can have two different strains, both with 10 percent THC and close to zero percent CBD, and one that smells like fruit might be sedating and a great treatment for insomnia, while the other that smells like pepper might be stimulating.” 3

In the same Healthline story, LaFrate noted the effects of terpenes in marijuana aren’t being properly studied and that the marijuana grown for scientists is far less potent than what is found on the street.

Are Young Adults Using Other Drugs Along with Pot?

So how much of the time are young adults ages 18 to 26, who may have begun experimenting with drugs by smoking pot in high school, adding other substances into the mix?

It’s hard to find a conclusive answer, but anecdotally, stories like Perry’s and Mendell’s are extremely common. When people who experiment with drugs build up a resistance, whether it be to marijuana or anything else, they feel the need to move on to using larger quantities or harder drugs to continue getting a fix.

A 2014 study showed that nearly half of people under 30 who presented to emergency rooms with drug-related problems, with marijuana listed as the primary drug of choice, met the criteria of a drug “abuser.” The study found that many had a co-occurring condition such as binge drinking.6 The study concluded that emergency rooms should be more frequently used as “teachable moments” to get people into treatment.


One-Fifth of underage drinkers reported using marijuana with alcohol

Data from the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that one-fifth of underage drinkers reported using marijuana with alcohol.7

People who abuse uppers, such as crystal meth or cocaine, often report using marijuana to come down from the high when they are ready to sleep or to moderate the effects when they are feeling too high.

Also, an abundance of research exists showing that teens and young adults who abuse marijuana may be doing so to self-medicate in the presence of co-occurring mental health problems that need to be treated.

The bottom line, Mendell says, is that we already know that marijuana can be harmful to young people. He fears the current discussion around pot is sending the wrong message. “I can’t tell you whether marijuana is good for certain medical conditions or not. But I can tell you that when there is a new story about how it can help a particular situation, the soundbite is that marijuana is not bad for you. That’s what people hear, and that’s lowering the perception of risk while use is going up.”




1. Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug? (2015, June). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved Oct. 18, 2015, from
2. Heitz, David. (2015, March, 23). Colorado marijuana engineered to get you higher. Healthline News. Retrieved Oct. 18, 2015, from
3. Morean, M. et al. (2015, September). High School Students’ Use of Electronic Cigarettes to Vaporize Cannabis. Pediatrics. Retrieved Oct. 18, 2015, from
4. Hall, W. et al. Cannabis use and the risk of developing a psychotic disorder. (2008, June). World Psychiatry. (2) 68-71. Retrieved Oct. 18, 2015, from
5. Halper, E. (2014, May 28). Mississippi, Home to Federal Government’s Official Stash of Marijuana. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved Oct. 18, 2015, from
6. Macias Konstantopoulos, W. et al. (2014, April 26). Identifying Patients with Problematic Drug Use in the Emergency Department: Results of a Multisite Study. Annals of Emergency Medicine.
7. National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (2012) Nearly One-Fifth of Underage Drinkers Report Current Use of Marijuana with Alcohol. Retrieved Oct. 18, 2015, from

Written by David Heitz