Marijuana a Gateway to Tobacco?

The idea that marijuana serves as a “gateway drug,” leading to the use and eventual abuse of harder substances, has been around for decades. Now a new study shows that marijuana use leads to a higher likelihood of tobacco use. It is still more common for drug abuse to progress from tobacco to pot, but research now shows that in many cases marijuana use develops before tobacco use. In addition, prior cannabis use increases the likelihood of becoming dependent on tobacco.

In this new study on gateway drug effects, rats were exposed to THC, the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis, for 3 days. Then, starting 1 week later, they were allowed to self-administer nicotine intravenously. THC exposure increased the likelihood of acquiring the nicotine self-administration response from 65 percent to 94 percent in THC-exposed rats. When the price of nicotine was manipulated by increasing the response requirement, THC-exposed rats maintained higher levels of intake than the other rats, indicating that THC exposure increased the value of nicotine reward.

These latest results are in sharp contrast to earlier findings that prior THC exposure did not increase the likelihood of rats acquiring either heroin or cocaine self-administration, nor did it increase the reward value of these drugs. The findings obtained here suggest that a history of marijuana use might have lasting effects that increase the risk of becoming addicted to nicotine.

Rats previously exposed to THC found nicotine more rewarding than rats not exposed to THC, according to research published in Neuropsychopharmacology. Although the doses of THC used in this study were high, this research suggests that marijuana use may increase the risk for nicotine dependence, which – through the use of tobacco – is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

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