Written By: Molly Groo

Molly is Lighthouse Recovery Institute’s Case Manager and Vocational Services. She has a Bachelor’s in International Relations, is a Certified Addiction Counselor, and it’s currently working towards her Master’s in Social Work. Molly’s experience allows her to provide expert knowledge about solution-based methods to help people in recovery maintain long-term sobriety.

Published on Jan 6, 2020 | Types of Drug Addictions

What Are Gateway Drugs?

Gateway Drugs

The theory of “gateway drugs” has been used 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.

But is this fact or fiction? Let’s take a look at the evidence on gateway drugs, drug use trends, and information that parents, teenagers, and professionals should be aware of.

How Common is Adolescent Drug Use?

Unfortunately, millions of teenagers experiment with drugs every day in the United States. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, over four million Americans ages 12-17 used illicit drugs at least once in the past year. The report also highlights the fact that millions of teenagers used alcohol, marijuana, tobacco, and even prescription drugs sometime within the last year, with many reporting within the last month before the survey.

Generally, the most common drugs that teenagers use are alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. However, there are some alarming rates of prescription abuse, cocaine use, and opiate use among teens. The data shows that hundreds of thousands of adolescents between ages 12 and 17 report abusing prescription pills like Adderall, Vicodin, and Xanax. So, the question remains: are some drugs like marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco “gateway drugs” that open the door for further drug use?

Gateway Drugs: Myths and Facts

Generally, there is some data to show that using marijuana can relate to progression to “harder” drugs. 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. Some data shows that marijuana changes how the brain responds to pleasure, in essence, “wiring” the brain for addiction. However, the evidence also indicates that marijuana usually does not lead to the use of “harder” drugs.

Alcohol maybe the real “gateway drug.” It’s the most commonly abused drug, especially for teens and younger adults. Drinking alcohol is linked to a higher likelihood of experimenting with other medications, such as prescription pills or illegal drugs.

That’s not to say that “common” drugs like alcohol or marijuana are necessarily gateway drugs to other substances. However, there’s a good reason for concern. Whether the concept of gateway drugs applies, the fact is that the younger someone begins to experiment, the more likely they are to develop an addiction. Even if someone never progresses to abuse of illicit drugs, dependence on alcohol or marijuana can be severe.

Adolescent drug abuse is dangerous, whether it’s a gateway drug, a prescription pill, or an illegal substance.

Focusing on Prevention and Treatment

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.

These risks include:

  • Increased risk of addiction
  • Higher rates of high-risk behaviors and injuries
  • Increased risk of contracting a communicable 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

and so much more.

Addiction Treatment For Substance Abuse

When prevention and education don’t work, the next step is often treatment. Often, people become dependent on substances without realizing it at first. Addiction is subtle and insidious. Many people find themselves dependent on having a few drinks after work, or on their prescription medications before realizing it’s a problem.

It’s important to know that there are options for quality treatment for all ages. Because no matter the drugs you were using or how you got started, help is available. Treatment offers therapy, group support, quality psychiatric care, and help with developing life skills. Also, for teenagers and young adults derailed by drugs or alcohol, treatment can help them get back on track with work or school.

The first step is to reach out and gather information if you’re concerned about your drug or alcohol use. If you are ready and need support, reach out to our admissions department today for a confidential assessment.

Cite This Article
Molly Groo. "Gateway Drugs: Fact or Fiction?." Lighthouse Recovery Institute., Published on Jan 6, 2020,


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