Most people have heard about gateway drugs. The gateway hypothesis states that the use of one substance will put an individual at increased risk of misusing another substance.

This theory was very popular in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s during the “War on Drugs”. It was often used to encourage people, especially young people, to stay away from certain drugs such as marijuana.

 While the term may not be as popular as it used to be, there’s still a view that using certain substances leads to the use of even more dangerous substances.

As more and more states legalize the use of cannabis products for medicinal and recreational use, some lawmakers have cited the gateway hypothesis to support their disapproval of the legalization of cannabis.

In this article, we’ll explore the gateway theory, the views of critics, and how substance abuse should be handled.

The Thinking Behind the Gateway Hypothesis

People who support the theory of gateway drugs draw on two conditions to back up their position. The first is that gateway drugs change the brain’s neuropathway.

Studies conducted on animals show that when they begin to use certain substances at an early age, they are more likely to become addicted to other substances. When postmortems were carried out, researchers found that the parts of the brain responsible for reward processing were altered when compared to other animals.

Scientists concluded that animals became more vulnerable to substance abuse when they used certain drugs early in life. Observation of humans suggests a similar correlation.

The second condition is that an interplay of environment and genes may account for the gateway hypothesis. Studies of human twins indicate that there is a significant genetic component to drug abuse and it is evident in people who use more than one substance.

Inherent characteristics may, therefore, play a role in how the brain’s neuropathways change. Researchers have found that multiple environmental and personal factors are linked to poly-drug abuse. 

What Are Gateway Drugs?

What Are Gateway Drugs

Gateway drugs are addictive substances that may pave the way for more severe drug use in the future. They are usually milder, relatively accessible substances like tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana which are commonly used by teenagers and young adults.

These substances give young people their first experience with being intoxicated or high. Over time, young users may experiment with other things that can get produce a more intense high.

Young people who try one drug are more likely to try additional substances. The substances they try after marijuana or alcohol are usually stronger with more serious side effects. These substances may include cocaine, heroin, and prescription drugs. 

Alcohol and marijuana temporarily increase the levels of dopamine in the brain. That’s why the user experiences feelings of pleasure and euphoria, especially the very first time they try the substance.

With regular use, people develop a tolerance, and the effects aren’t as pronounced as before. While some individuals take increasingly larger doses of the same drug, others look for something stronger that will produce a stronger high.

What Are the Most Common Types of Gateway Drugs

You’ve probably heard that marijuana is a gateway drug. You’ve probably also heard someone say that marijuana is not a gateway drug because they’ve been using it for years and they’ve never tried anything else.

However, marijuana is said to be one of the most common gateway drugs. Many people see it as a safe drug or a therapeutic and they don’t think they can become addicted. Most people who use marijuana don’t plan to move on to harder drugs. 

While many people now accept that cannabis has therapeutic uses, research shows that marijuana users are more likely to use cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy. This doesn’t mean that everyone who uses marijuana will become addicted to another substance or even try one. 

In fact, research shows that most people who use marijuana don’t actually go on to use harder drugs. However, many people who use harder drugs often started out by using marijuana.


Meanwhile, alcohol is said to be the most commonly consumed gateway drug. It is socially acceptable to drink wine, beer, and other drinks and people see teen alcohol use as a normal part of growing up.

Some people drink socially without going on to develop a problem with alcohol or any other addictive substance. However, liquor is merely a starting point for others. 

Individuals often start out drinking on weekends while they socialize. Eventually, some drink more and more throughout the week and before long, they can’t wait to get home and drink. They turn to alcohol to help them cope with the challenges they face.

Even if an individual doesn’t become addicted to alcohol, they may still transition to drugs after using alcohol excessively. They may use these drugs while intoxicated or progress to drug use as a way to boost their mood or relieve stress.


Nicotine is considered to be another gateway drug. People who smoke cigarettes or vape usually do it because it makes them feel better. Using nicotine may be as simple for them as drinking coffee since it just becomes part of their routine.

For some people, it’s easy to go from using nicotine to using marijuana or cocaine in social situations or as a way to improve their mood. Smoking has increased among young people because of the popularity of e-cigarettes and vape devices. 

Prescription Medications

The abuse of prescription drugs is a serious concern in the United States with opioids being the most commonly abused medication. Opioid painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin are linked to the use of heroin. These drugs have similar effects to heroin.

Some people who become addicted to prescription opioids do so after getting a legitimate prescription from their doctor. After using their medication in a way that is not prescribed, they may move on to cheaper and more readily available drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Heroin and fentanyl, in particular, have played a role in thousands of overdose deaths. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, people who use opioids are 40 times more likely than nonusers to abuse heroin.

Meanwhile, Ritalin, which is prescribed to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, has been associated with cocaine use. Both Ritalin and cocaine are stimulants.

Therefore, they increase dopamine levels in the brain and boost alertness. This is why people who used Ritalin in the past may be more vulnerable to cocaine abuse later.

Gateway Drugs in Teenagers

Gateway Drugs in Teenagers

It is estimated that genetics are responsible for as much as 70 percent of an individual’s risk for developing a substance use disorder. However, after genetics, one of the main contributors to addiction is the age of first use.

Research shows that teenagers who have their first alcoholic drink before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop an addiction at some point than teens who delay drinking until the age of 20 or older.

Furthermore, almost 70 percent of adolescents who try an illegal drug before age 13 develop an addiction within the following seven years.

Some people argue that any drug used by an adolescent is a gateway drug since the brain is still developing. The human brain doesn’t fully develop until we reach our mid-twenties.

This is why teenagers have challenges with self-control, decision-making, and judgment. Any drug or alcohol use before the age of 25 can disrupt the brain’s development. 

Also, teens naturally have higher dopamine levels and this causes them to seek out a variety of pleasurable experiences including experimenting with drugs.

Young people are, therefore, likely to make rash decisions and try various substances without thinking about the potential negative consequences. Therefore, any type of drug use increases the chances of more severe substance use and addiction later on.

If your teen is drinking or using drugs, you need to intervene. Even though alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana are considered soft drugs, the harmful effects of gateway drugs on the body can’t be overstated. Early intervention can have a significant effect on their health and wellbeing in the long term.

Challenges to the Validity of the Gateway Theory 

While some people take the gateway hypothesis at face value, it continues to be debated among researchers and addiction specialists. There are several reasons for this. 

The Shared Factors Model

Firstly, the hypothesis is at odds with the common liability or shared factors model. This model is built on the premise that people who have one type of mental health disorder are at an increased risk of developing other mental health disorders. 

The gateway hypothesis states that there is a specific relationship between the use of one drug and the subsequent use of another drug. However, the common liability suggests that people who abuse any substance are at a higher risk of developing mental health disorders including substance use disorders. 

Environmental Factors

Another alternative explanation is that people who are vulnerable to drug use start with readily available substances like tobacco, marijuana, and alcohol. As they interact with other people who use drugs, they become more likely to try other substances. More research is needed on why some people progress from one substance to another. 

Issues with Animal-Based Studies

Some experts also question the research that supports the idea of gateway drugs. Some argue that animal models of behavior can’t be used to generalize the human experience, especially when animals are studied in sterile lab settings rather than enriched environments. Animal behavior may also not fully explain the complexity of human experience.

Correlation vs. Causation

There’s also the fact that correlation is not the same as causation. The studies that show a relationship between using one drug and then using another are correlational.

While they show an association between the two drugs, they don’t prove that using one led to the use of the other. That’s why we say the use of marijuana, nicotine, or alcohol may increase the likelihood that a person will use a harder substance; not that they cause them to do so.

The Complexity of Co-Occurring Disorders

Another reason why some professionals question the gateway theory is that the link between co-occurring mental health disorders is complex. Scientists don’t fully understand how they work yet.

Therefore, it’s possible that the use of any potentially prohibited drug at an early age suggests a tendency toward antisocial behavior. This may increase the likelihood that a person goes on to use other substances. It’s also possible that simply being around people who abuse illegal drugs increases the likelihood that a person will try and continue using these drugs.

The Reality of Personal Choice

The final challenge we’ll look at is that of personal choice. While studying animals or images of the human brain indicate that the neural pathways of individuals change after using certain drugs, it doesn’t mean that they have no choice as to whether they use drugs or not.

Medical models of addiction can suggest that chronic substance abusers lose the ability to choose. However, some people argue that if this were the case, addiction treatment programs wouldn’t work.

There is no medical way to return the brain to its pre-substance abuse state. Yet, it’s clear that people do stop using alcohol and drugs, through the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy and other types of treatment.

Prevention and Treating Substance Abuse Problems

It’s important to understand the risks associated with using alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, and even prescription drugs. While these may seem harmless at first, they can be very dangerous and it’s possible they can lead to the use of even more potent substances.

Multiple factors work together to determine whether a person will become addicted to drugs or alcohol. The more risk factors that are present, the more likely it is that addiction will occur.

Risk factors for substance abuse in young people include:

  • Genetics
  • Prenatal alcohol exposure
  • Parental use of drugs or alcohol
  • Anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorder
  • Poor impulse control
  • Parent-child conflict
  • Child abuse
  • Poor academic performance
  • Substance-using peers

With early intervention, even people for whom there are multiple risk factors can avoid becoming addicted. Young people often benefit from parental guidance, drug education in school, and instruction on how to avoid peer pressure. Teaching teens the benefits of living a drug-free life can also help them to stay away from “softer” substances.

Gateway Alcohol and Drug Treatment

Gateway Alcohol and Drug Treatment

Substance abuse treatment will vary somewhat depending on which drug is involved. It should also be designed to address each person’s specific challenges.

However, rehabilitation can include the use of medication, behavioral therapy, group counseling, and peer support. People who are addicted to prescription opioids are often given methadone, naltrexone, or buprenorphine during the withdrawal and recovery process.

There are no Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs to treat people addicted to marijuana. However, therapy and counseling can be very effective in changing behavior and preventing relapse. Meanwhile, people struggling with alcoholism can be prescribed various medications to help them during the withdrawal process.

These drugs include benzodiazepines such as Valium and anticonvulsants such as Tegretol. They may also be prescribed Disulfiram which causes unpleasant effects if they use alcohol or naltrexone which may reduce the urge to drink.

What This All Means

So, where does the evidence stand on gateway drugs? Research shows that using some substances early in life increases the probability that a person will abuse other substances later. However, the reasons for this are not clear and it may not be a simple case of cause and effect. It’s possible that a combination of genetic and environmental factors explains the link. 

If you or someone you know uses marijuana or drinks alcohol, there’s no guarantee that you will move on to other substances. However, if you believe your substance use has become problematic or you’re having difficulty controlling your usage, you should seek professional help.

Regardless of whether the gateway hypothesis fully explains progressing from one substance to another, all substance abuse problems are serious. 

Contact Pathfinders Recovery Center Today!

At our luxury recovery centers in Arizona and Colorado, we treat both substance use disorders and co-occurring conditions. If you or someone you love needs help, we’re here for you.

We provide a variety of evidence-based, research-backed treatment options that are tailored to each person’s needs. We’ll help you or your loved one to get your life back on track. All you need to do is call us or contact us via our website.

We can verify your insurance and advise you of the next steps you should take. An addiction counselor is available 24/7 to talk to you so call us today!


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