THE GATEWAY DRUG: A SHALLOW SISTER’S TAKE
Is Marijuana the gateway drug? No.
Is alcohol? No.
It is nicotine.
And how does that work? It is your first sojourn into the world of danger. Trembling fingers take the cigarette from the packet presented to you. It’s exciting, it’s ‘bad’, it’s what the cool people are doing, and we all want to belong to a group. Non-smokers don’t have a club. They don’t gather together at the end of street in a circle with the ritual of lighting each other’s fag. It is a grouping of people (young ones) who can get together and bond several times a day making it more attractive than waiting for a Saturday football match or a thick shake in a fast food place. And when you are alone puffing on your cigarette you know there are others out there, your friends, who might also be smoking as they ruminate on the mysteries of the world, or rather, how not to alert their parents to your new habit. Yes, we think it’s a habit. A bad habit - we are told by a generation of smokers lured into its pull, and by cigarette companies. It is not a habit, it is an Addiction – a very powerful one: Psychological and Physiological. On the Psychological level it’s a bonding tool; a club of a kind; an empathetic way to connect with other smokers, and an instant way to meet friends. “Have you got a light?” was, and possibly still is, the most used pick up line of all time.
On the scientific level nicotine elevates pleasure levels called dopamines. The initial dopamine boost lessens as you near adulthood and you may find yourself smoking more cigarettes to compensate. At times of stress, heartache and pain, chain smoking is not uncommon. And for many the drop in dopamine leads you to seek other drugs that can ensure dopamine rushes (alcohol, cannabis, heroin) because nicotine prepares the brain to respond to other substances in what is known as cross-sensitisation which heightens brain activity and could entice you to try stronger substances.
The promoters of drink and cigarettes looked for a scapegoat and found it in marijuana. They labeled it ‘the gateway drug’ and scared the bejezes out of parents. However, D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) now admit that: “most people who smoke pot do not move on to harder drugs”. Some even believe that marijuana use may prevent other drug use.
Another way pot has been mistaken as the gateway drug is that tobacco is often used in a ‘joint’ as a bulk filler and the smoker may not realize they are addicted to the nicotine rather than the marijuana. They probably won’t find out until they behave like a heroin addict looking for a fix and are offered a cigarette instead. And thus nicotine finds another soul through a back door.
Back to nicotine and its addictive properties. People have often said that it was easier to kick heroin (and we have all seen those ‘cold turkey’ films to know how hard it can be) than it was to stop smoking. AA has a no drug policy: if you are a drug addict you must also put drink aside, but not smoking. Most recovering addicts (drink and drugs) still smoke cigarettes. They find it beyond their capabilities to give that drug up and yet have crawled out of alcoholic gutters and/or drug infused squats.
Smokers put their addiction above everyone (as would any addict). Their small compromises appear generous (smoking outside, asking if anyone minds if they smoke?). In reality it is the law that has enforced this sense of consideration by shaming. And still smokers remain defiant in their addiction, proclaiming ‘they enjoy it’. Really? Standing in the snow, having to puff a cigarette before they enter an airport, waiting till everyone has eaten so they can leave the restaurant to smoke, stale smoke clinging to hair, clothes, breath? I know that no one enjoys that!
And if you don’t want your kids to fall into the trap monitor their friends. Who smokes is a danger because they need new recruits so they are not alone in their addiction and cannot be branded ‘weak’ or ‘an addict’. Psychologically smoking carries the mark of a rebel – the teenager with angst, and anything slightly Che Gavara-ish is romantic, that is until the hacking cough at 40, premature aging, and all those health warnings that are still not enough to stop lighting up.
The friends I have known who did not smoke tobacco, did not abuse other substances. However, the ones that smoked were fearless in excess. Many of us were lucky, we either couldn’t afford the really nice highs (like opium or cocaine), or had a respectful fear for the other stuff, and thus avoided further addiction. However, there were some who struggled, but recovered (except they all still smoke).
For all the above reasons I say that the gateway drug is nicotine. More addictive than anything I’ve ever tried and producing the least fun results. It’s a bugger to give up and yet as you age you are more likely to do drugs less, binge drink less, but do you smoke less? Sadly no, because you remain searching for the dopamine high.