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The Real Gateway Drug? It’s R-Rated Movies

Will going to R-rated movies like It make an adolescent a hardened drug addict? Unlikely. But a study released this month suggests a link between racy flicks and future substance use.

The study — The Role of Sensation Seeking and R-rated Movie Watching in Early Substance Use Initiation — published ahead of print in Journal of Youth and Adolescence, makes the assertion that “parental R-rated movie restriction may … potentially delay smoking and marijuana initiation as well as adolescent drinking.” 

This kind of warning may be new for cinephiles, but it is old hat for cannabis enthusiasts. For generations, drug warriors have warned us about the mythical gateway drug theory that suggests adolescents who try marijuana are more likely to graduate to harder drugs. This theory, of course, has no scientific basis and has been discounted by just about every study.

Hell, even the scientist who first coined the “gateway” term in association with cannabis admitted that nicotine, actually is biologically the most potent gateway drug of all. Booze is the first drug for most of us, with 88 percent having never tried another substance before they started drinking.

And the National Institute on Drug Abuse admits that “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.”

Of course, any conversation dealing with the gateway theory, no matter the substance, needs a caveat. As the Atlantic explained in a story from a few years ago:

And that brings up an important flaw of the gateway theory in general. Science writers and readers are fond of saying that correlation does not imply causation, and this is a perfect example. Let’s say 11 percent of pot smokers start using cocaine. That doesn’t mean one drug led to the other. As Miriam Boeri, an association professor of sociology at Bentley University points out, poverty, mental illness, and friend groups are all much stronger predictors of drug use. Marijuana isn’t a “gateway” to harder drugs in the same way that ordering an appetizer isn’t a “gateway” to an entree: One comes before the other, but you’re eating both because you’re already at the restaurant.

This goofy theory was first spread by Harry J. Anslinger, America’s first drug czar who basically single-handedly created reefer madness in the 1930s.

“Over 50 percent of those young addicts started on marijuana smoking,” Anslinger claimed in testimony before a congressional committee in 1951. “They started there and graduated to heroin; they took the needle when the thrill of marijuana was gone.”

Here is the abstract of the study connecting R-rated films and the gateway theory:

Adolescence is a time of heightened impulsivity as well as substantial exposure to the effects of popular media. Specifically, R-rated movie content and sensation seeking have been shown to be individually and multiplicatively associated with early alcohol initiation, as well as to mutually influence one another over time. The present study attempts to replicate and extend these findings to cigarette and marijuana use, considering several peer, parental, and individual correlates, as well as substance-specific movie exposure, among 1023 youth (mean age 12.4 years, 52% female), using a combination of cross-lagged path models, latent growth models, and discrete-time survival models. Changes over time were associated between R-rated movie watching and sensation seeking, and both individually, not multiplicatively, predicted earlier alcohol initiation. R-rated movie watching (but not sensation seeking) also predicted earlier smoking and marijuana initiation. Parental R-rated movie restriction may thus potentially delay smoking and marijuana initiation as well as adolescent drinking.

If this is true for R-rated movies, it boggles the mind to think what an X-rated movie will do!

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