Empirical Reality or Methodological Uncertainty: The Promises and Perils of the Gateway Hypothesis in Today’s Drug Landscapes

Despite the long title, this presentation provides a relatively straightforward assessment of the gateway hypothesis – the notion that marijuana use will eventually lead to experimentation with harder drugs. There is a long tradition of research demonstrating that people with substance use problems often began by experimenting with marijuana. Moreover, early marijuana initiation has been consistently correlated with alcohol abuse, smoking, and more serious substance abuse in later life. Drawing on data from a nationally representative longitudinal study of adolescents, I show that the association between marijuana use and subsequent substance use is considerably more complex than we often think. Adolescents who begin experimenting with marijuana are much different that those who don’t, making comparisons across groups difficult. However, once these differences have been minimized, much of the ‘gateway effect’ disappears. I conclude by arguing that the current state of research on marijuana as a gateway drug is best characterized by methodological uncertainty, rather than an as empirical reality.

Learning Objective

By the end of this presentation, participants will be able to:

  • Critically evaluate evidence for and against the gateway hypothesis
  • Understand the implications of the gateway hypothesis for contemporary drug control policy
  • Differentiate between the processes of ‘selection’ and ‘causation’ in the relationship between marijuana use and subsequent substance use


Matt Vogel, PhD

Matt Vogel is Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri – St. Louis and a researcher at OTB – Research for the Built Environment, TU Delft, the Netherlands. He received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University at Albany, SUNY. His research examines the consequences of residential mobility for youth offending, the spatial dimensions of neighborhood influences on adolescent behavior, and the relationship between population dynamics and crime

Slides and Handouts

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