The theory of “gateway drugs” is a way to warn kids and teenagers about the dangers of experimenting with popular drugs like marijuana and alcohol. The belief is that these drugs can be a step towards “harder” or more dangerous drugs like cocaine or heroin. However, most teenagers don’t know what are gateway drugs, and with much conflicting information about gateway drugs and their dangers.
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What are Gateway Drugs?
The gateway drug hypothesis is the idea of the use of one particular substance will lead people to be at higher risk of abusing other substances. The idea was widely popular in the 1970s and 80s when the gateway theory brought attention to the so-called War on Drugs in the United States. The idea of the term was to place more focus on substances like marijuana and alcohol.
Common Gateway Drugs
According to the gateway drug theory, any addictive substance can be considered one. However, three specific drugs are always labeled as gateway drugs:
- Tobacco: It’s a common saying that those who start to smoke tobacco will eventually move to other substances such as alcohol.
- Alcohol: While alcohol is widely accepted, it’s the most common gateway drug as most people will mix alcohol with other substances, such as prescription drugs.
- Marijuana: Even though today, marijuana is legal in many states, people believe marijuana could be a gateway to other drugs, including prescription medications and illicit drugs.
Myths and Facts About Gateway Drugs
The biggest misconception about these gateway drugs is that whoever tries them automatically becomes addicted to other substances. Most people argue that two overarching conditions are the reason why people become more vulnerable to abusing other substances.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people who report marijuana use also say higher rates of developing alcoholism. Marijuana use also correlates to nicotine addiction. However, the evidence also indicates that marijuana usually does not lead to the use of “harder” drugs.
Another common gateway drug is alcohol, especially for teens and younger adults. Drinking alcohol could lead to a higher likelihood of experimenting with other medications, such as prescription pills or illegal drugs.
How Gateway Drugs Alter Neural Pathways in the Brain
So far, animal studies indicate that animals who start to use specific substances at an early age are likely to develop addictive behaviors towards other substances. The studies reveal that certain areas of the brain show alterations when compared to healthy animals. There is some observational data among humans that prove the same idea. However, we need more research to understand the effects of gateway drugs in humans.
Genes and Environment Play a Significant Role
Some twin studies show that there’s a significant genetic component to drug abuse. Certain inherent factors contribute to the alterations of neural pathways that could account for the gateway hypothesis. Also, drug addiction studies notice environmental factors that have to deal with poly-substance abuse. Based on these findings, people believe the gateway theory could be real.
What Research Says
Overall, the theories supporting gateway drugs seem pretty credible. It’s not surprising to think that one type of substance can lead to people trying harder substances. There’s no doubt that people drink or smoke cigarettes recreationally without becoming addicted to drugs. However, monitoring the use of gateway drugs is critical, particularly among teenagers, to prevent drug abuse in the future.
Some research from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia looking into gateway drugs among teens and adults found that:
- Teenagers who use gateway drugs are 266 times more likely to struggle with cocaine addiction than those who don’t.
- Children who drink are 50 times more likely to use cocaine than nondrinkers.
- Adults who drank alcohol during their childhood are six times more likely to use cocaine.
- Adults who used marijuana as children are 17 times more likely to be regular cocaine users.
- Nearly all cocaine users tried either marijuana, cigarettes, or alcohol before trying cocaine; almost 90 percent of them tried all three substances.
The earlier someone starts using, the more likely they are to become addicted. As a result, prevention and education is the first step to reduce the likeliness of addiction later in life. Parents, teenagers, and all adults should be aware of the risks and potential consequences of early drug abuse.
- Increased risk of addiction.
- Higher rates of high-risk behaviors and injuries.
- Increased risk of contracting an infectious disease.
- Damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and also other vital organ systems.
- Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
- Loss of friends and meaningful relationships.
- Poor performance at school and work.
- Low self-esteem and loss of values.
There is evidence that using some substances early in development does result in a higher probability that an individual will abuse other substances; however, the reason for this is not well understood. The disease of addiction is an extremely complex one that’s not fully understood yet.
The relationship between early alcohol use and later use of other drugs has the most substantial evidence to suggest that it may be a gateway drug. However, there are so many factors (genetics, environment, predisposition, etc.) that play a significant role in the development of an addiction.
Seeking Addiction Treatment
Talking about gateway drugs was always a prevention method to keep teenagers and young adults away from drugs. However, the truth is that prevention and education aren’t always effective. If you or someone you know is struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, it’s essential that you know there are treatment options available.
Reach out to an addiction treatment center near you and complete a confidential assessment to know what type of treatment is right for you. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, we offer comprehensive and personalized drug and alcohol use disorder treatment programs that incorporate therapy, group support, quality psychiatric care, and help with developing life skills.
We know how challenging, and scary substance use disorders can be. Our specialists are always available to help you and your family understand this chronic disease better. Step by step, we can help you find the right path toward recovery.