for later multiple drug use. For example, in a longitudinal study that examined drug use and dependence, about 26% of problem drinkers reported that they first used marijuana after the onset of alcohol-related problems (R. Pandina, IOM workshop). The study also found that 11% of marijuana users developed chronic marijuana problems; most also had alcohol problems.
Intensity of drug use is an important risk factor in progression. Daily marijuana users are more likely than their peers to be extensive users of other substances (for review, see Kandel and Davies78). Of 34- to 35-year-old men who had used marijuana 10-99 times by the age 24-25, 75% never used any other illicit drug; 53% of those who had used it more than 100 times did progress to using other illicit drugs 10 or more times. 78 Comparable proportions for women are 64% and 50%.
The factors that best predict use of illicit drugs other than marijuana are probably the following: age of first alcohol or nicotine use, heavy marijuana use, and psychiatric disorders. However, progression to illicit drug use is not synonymous with heavy or persistent drug use. Indeed, although the age of onset of use of licit drugs (alcohol and nicotine) predicts later illicit drug use, it does not appear to predict persistent or heavy use of illicit drugs.90
Data on the gateway phenomenon are often overinterpreted. For example, one study reports that "marijuana's role as a gateway drug appears to have increased."55 It was a retrospective study based on interviews of drug abusers who reported smoking crack or injecting heroin daily. The data from the study provide no indication of what proportion of marijuana users become serious drug abusers; rather, they indicate that serious drug abusers usually use marijuana before they smoke crack or inject heroin. Only a small percentage of the adult population uses crack or heroin daily; during the five-year period from 1993 to 1997, an average of three people per 1,000 used crack and about two per 1,000 used heroin in the preceding month.132
Many of the data on which the gateway theory is based do not measure dependence; instead, they measure useeven once-only use. Thus, they show only that marijuana users are more likely to use other illicit drugs (even if only once) than are people who never use marijuana, not that they become dependent or even frequent users. The authors of these studies are careful to point out that their data should not be used as evidence of an inexorable causal progression; rather they note that identifying stage-based user groups makes it possible to identify the specific risk factors that predict movement from one stage of drug use to the nextthe real issue in the gateway discussion.25
In the sense that marijuana use typically precedes rather than follows initiation into the use of other illicit drugs, it is indeed a gateway drug.