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Gateway Drugs Guide

The Ultimate Guide to Gateway Drugs

Experts have a variety of opinions on gateway drugs. Some say that the gateway drug theory is nothing but a myth. Others argue that it certainly makes sense that these drugs would lead to other, more harmful substances. The question is, what is the truth behind gateway drugs? Are they really something to be concerned about? These are the questions we'd like to answer for you.

There are a number of different gateway drugs that cause concerns for addiction treatment professionals. If you are a drug addict, you might be wondering what these drugs are. You may also be curious about whether or not you're at risk of a more dangerous addiction.

The information you need is all here. It is important to get the facts about gateway drugs. That way, you can educate yourself, and you can also find a way to get the drug treatment you need.

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Gateway Drugs Defined

"At the root of all addiction is pain." - Anonymous

Merriam-Webster defines a gateway drug as, "A drug (such as alcohol or marijuana) whose use is thought to lead to the use of and dependence on a harder drug (such as cocaine or heroin)."

Gateway drugs are generally habit forming drugs. These substances might not be addictive. However, they can lead to more addictive drugs. There are many studies that suggest that it's natural to transition into harder drugs.

The term "gateway" refers to the opening of the door to more dangerous, addictive drugs. These drugs boost serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. As they do, they increase the amount of pleasure the person experiences. Increased dopamine and serotonin are associated with activities like eating a good meal, or sex. They can also be associated with feelings of safety and security.

As a person uses a gateway drug, he or she eventually becomes dependent upon these increases. This is how drug dependence forms. Tolerance levels tend to go up as time goes on. This leads many people to search for drugs that harder, and more addictive.

Understanding the Gateway Drug Theory

The Gateway Drug Theory goes by a few other names as well. These include the Stepping-Stone Theory, the Escalation Hypothesis and the Progression Hypothesis. The basic idea is that any psychoactive drug will eventually increase the probability of additional drug use. There could be many reasons behind this, such as chemical changes in the brain.

There is a lot of support for the Gateway Drug Theory. Namely, many of first-time drug users tend to move on to further illegal drugs later on. A number of factors affected each individual's probability to continue to use. We'll discuss these later on.

Gateway Drugs Guide

The bottom line is that gateway drugs are real. They are a genuine threat to people everywhere. They offer a clear probability of progressive drug use as time goes on.

Some Background Information on the Idea of Gateway Drugs

The idea of gateway drugs being an issue actually dates back to the 1930s. However, more recent anti-drug activists made it more popular today. In the 1980s, people like Robert DuPont pioneered the concept of gateway drugs. There have been many studies completed over the years to determine the viability of this theory.

There are certain drugs that experts agree fall into the category of gateway drugs. Adolescents appear to be the most at risk for using them, and for turning to other drugs in the future. However, that’s not to say that adults have nothing to worry about. Anyone who uses a gateway drug is taking a major risk.

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Facts and Statistics Supporting the Gateway Drug Theory

There are so many statistics available that support the Gateway Drug Theory. They tell us that:


Children between the ages of 12 and 17 who use three gateways drugs are up to 266 times more likely to use cocaine. Adults who use three gateway drugs are up to 323 times more likely to use cocaine.


90% of all people who used crack cocaine first used at least one type of gateway drug. 90% of children who use marijuana smoke cigarettes or drink first.


Children who use marijuana are 85 times more likely to use cocaine. Children who smoke daily are 13 times more likely to use heroin than those who don't.

  • Exposure to marijuana is likely to be associated with cocaine use in young adulthood.
  • Exposure to cigarettes and alcohol is linked with illegal psychoactive substances in young adulthood.
  • Adults who use marijuana were much more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.
  • Marijuana users who also use alcohol are much more likely to be at risk of a worsening alcohol use disorder.
  • Marijuana use has been linked to nicotine addiction.
  • Cannabis has been shown to prime the brain for increased response to other drugs, such as morphine.
  • Children who drink alcohol are 50 times more likely to use cocaine.
  • Children who smoke cigarettes are 19 times more likely to use cocaine.
  • Adults who used marijuana as children are 17 times more likely to use cocaine regularly.
  • 91% of adults who used marijuana when they were children smoked cigarettes or drank alcohol first.
  • Adults who drank alcohol as children are six times more likely to regularly use cocaine.

Furthermore, the use of gateway drugs among children and teens is increasing every single year. The fact that their use is increasing means that the potential for addiction to harder drugs is also going up.

Gateway Drug Examples to Be Aware of

Not every drug is considered to be a gateway drug. There are actually four different drugs that fall under this category. They are:

When you hear the term gateway drug, alcohol probably isn’t the first one that comes to your mind. Many experts agree that it should be. According to an article on The Washington Post website, alcohol is the only one that’s virtually everywhere. If you ask anyone if they use substances, they’ll probably mention alcohol. It’s actually the first drug that most people try. 

Some researchers have linked the first use of alcohol with the first use of an illicit drug for teens. They’re saying that teenagers are likely to use illegal drugs once they start drinking. Alcohol is the most likely drug among young people to this day. Drinking quickly opens the door for trying other drugs as well. 

Of course, teenagers haven’t had a lot of time to try other substances. Alcohol might be the only one they had a chance to use. The study kept this in mind, which is why they also asked adults about their drug use histories. One common theme was found in all of the interviews. Most people stated that alcohol was the first drug they ever tried.

Researchers also suggest that there is a strong link between nicotine use and later drug use. They’ve even found that lowering smoking rates in young people may reduce cocaine abuse overall. Nicotine is also among the most widely used gateway drugs.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 90% of cocaine users first smoked cigarettes. Most of these individuals started smoking at early ages. The theory has also been tested in mice, and found to be conclusive.

Smoking cigarettes actually changes the brain so that it is more susceptible to other addictions. A gene called FosB was linked to cocaine addiction. In smokers, the expression levels of that gene increased dramatically. During the studies, they increased 61% in only seven days.

It is unfortunate that so many young people smoke cigarettes. This has done nothing to help the overall drug problem. Fortunately, so much is known today about the dangers of smoking. This has helped to bring the number of young smokers down some. However, there is still so much more work that needs to be done.

For many people, marijuana isn’t the very first drug they try. Most individuals will try smoking or drinking alcohol first. Even so, it is still a widely known gateway drug. 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people who use marijuana are at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder. In fact, this can occur in as little as three years. Likewise, people who already have an alcohol use disorder at risk for it becoming much worse. 

Many experiments have been done on the use of THC in animals. The results show that this chemical acts by priming the brain for other drugs. This is consistent with the idea of the Gateway Drug Theory. 

Marijuana causes dopamine levels to increase in the brain. Some experts theorize that this might result in the need for other drugs to meet the brain’s demand. However, most experts agree that many marijuana users don’t go on to use other drugs. Some will, which is what classifies this drug as a gateway drug.

This one may surprise you. Prescription drugs are medications that are used to treat pain. Many people depend on these drugs to get through each day. Without them, they will be in excruciating pain. Others may use these substances for the euphoric high that can result from them. The high can be addictive. In fact, it’s possible to become addicted with both regular and recreational use.

Legal painkillers may help those who need them. However, they are actually contributing to the drug problem in the United States. Not only are more and more people becoming addicted to them, but they’re also moving on to harder drugs. In this way, pain medications have become one of the newest gateway drugs.

Prescription pain pills are difficult for people to obtain for very long. Doctors may cut off prescriptions after only a few refills. Eventually, insurance companies may refuse to cover the cost of them. This means that people are forced to either live with the pain, or find an alternative. For many people, finding an alternative means turning to heroin.

The Effects of Gateway Drugs on the Body

Although gateway drugs do typically lead to the use of other drugs, they are also dangerous. It's important to understand the effects of gateway drugs on the mind and on the body.

There are many different types of alcohol. Young people, in particular, tend to believe that they are "safe" if they drink beer. However, what they don't understand is that drinking large amounts of beer is equivalent to smaller amounts of other drinks. Depending on the type of alcohol being consumed, alcohol levels can range from 2% to 60%.

In the short-term, alcohol can affect:

  • A person's speech
  • A person's body movements
  • A person's ability to think rationally
  • A person's decision making processes
  • A person's perception
  • A person's judgment

In the long-term, alcohol can be incredibly dangerous. It can result in:

  • Liver disease
  • Nerve damage in the body
  • Malnutrition
  • Cancer of the mouth
  • Cancer of the throat

Nicotine is most commonly consumed by smoking cigarettes. It is a chemical found in tobacco. Cigarettes can contain about 4,000 chemicals. Even more chemicals are created with cigarettes are lit on fire. 2,000 of these are known to be poisonous to humans.

People who smoke usually know they shouldn't. However, they tend to believe that it's a fairly benign, socially acceptable activity. Even though it's true that it's not acceptable as it once was, people continue to do it.

Nicotine use can lead to:

  • Significant changes in the brain, including addiction
  • Lightheadedness
  • Problems with sleep
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Tremors in the body
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Reduced ability to see at night
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Risk of infertility and miscarriage
  • Increased risk of fractures
  • Increased risk of osteoporosis

For teens, marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug. There are more than 400 different chemicals in marijuana. These all affect the brain. The main chemical that alters the brain is called THC.

Even the short-term effects of marijuana are cause for concern. These include:

  • Short-term memory difficulties
  • Severe anxiety and paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Hallucinations
  • Panic attacks
  • Lowered reaction times
  • An increased heart rate
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Coordination difficulties
  • Sexual problems for men

The long-term effects of marijuana are even more serious. These include:

  • A decline in IQ
  • Problems with school performance
  • Thinking impairment
  • Learning impairment
  • Addiction
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • Negative impact on the immune system
  • Problems with breathing
  • Negative impact on the endocrine system

Using marijuana has the potential to destroy a person's life. It commonly leads to financial problems and relationship problems as well.

There are several different types of prescription drugs. However, opioid drugs are the ones that most commonly are referred to as gateway drugs. These medications are dangerous, and they can lead to several different effects on the body.

In the short-term, prescription drugs can cause:

  • Symptoms of depression
  • A decrease in blood pressure
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Digestive problems, including constipation
  • Problems with breathing

If prescription drug abuse continues, the consequences become much more severe. The long-term effects of prescription drugs include:

  • Sharp muscle and bone pains in the body
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Cold flashes, even in hot weather
  • Restlessness throughout the body
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • A risk of seizures
  • A risk of heart attacks

The fact that these drugs are coined as gateway drugs is problematic. However, it's important to remember that they also have devastating consequences all their own. Using them is dangerous, both for their effects, and what they could potentially lead to.

The Definition of Addiction Explained

The word addiction can sometimes be a confusing one for people to understand. Many people will even use the words drug abuse and drug addiction to mean the same thing. Drug addiction and substance abuse are actually very different. It's important to understand the definition of addiction. In doing so, it becomes easier to identify one within yourself.

When you suffer from an addiction, you actually have a disease. Yes, addiction is a disease. It's not something you chose to have happen to you. You did choose to use drugs, but once the addiction sets in, there's not much you can do to stop it.

When you have an addiction, it means that your life revolves around your drug or drugs of choice. You think about using constantly. You arrange your life around your ability to use drugs. You feel a deep and desperate need to use. Drugs have become the most important thing in your life. Without them, you just don't feel complete.

Drug abuse is much different from addiction. When you're abusing drugs, you're using them without feeling a need to. It may just be something you enjoy doing. You don't feel as though you have to do it to feel normal, or more like yourself. You don't think about using all the time. You also don't experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop using.

Drug abuse always comes before drug addiction. This is something that can be hard for many people to understand. They think that they can carelessly use drugs without having to worry about addiction. This is not true at all. It's difficult to say how long someone must be abusing drugs in order for addiction to occur. The length of time differs for everyone.

It depends on a number of different things, such as:

  • What type of drug is being used
  • How much of the drug is being used
  • Often the drug use is taking place
  • Whether or not the drug is being used alongside alcohol or other drugs
  • Certain predispositions to addiction the individual may have

Usually, drug addiction occurs when people are least expecting it to. Many people continue to live in denial, even as their addictions progress. This is true for gateway drug addiction, as well as addictions to harder drugs.

Do You Suffer from a Drug Addiction? Ways to Identify it

You may be in a position where you thought you were participating in substance abuse. You didn't realize that it was possible that you had an addiction. Maybe you're even using a gateway drug that you didn't think you could become addicted to.

Drug Addiction

Regardless of what your situation is, it's important to identify an addiction if you have one. It can be useful for you to take a drug addiction quiz. Answering a series of questions about your drug use can be very insightful for you. It can help you understand whether or not you have an addiction and the level of that addiction. It can also give you an idea about what drug addiction treatment options might be right for you.

You can also look for some of the more common signs of drug addiction in your life. These include:

  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you're not able to use
  • Trying to stop using drugs multiple times without success
  • Being told by loved ones that you need to consider professional treatment
  • Using drugs even though it's damaging your health
  • Lying to your loved ones about your drug use
  • Stealing money in order to pay for drugs
  • Thinking about using drugs constantly
  • Avoiding events when you know you won't be able to use drugs
  • Spending time with different people who use drugs
  • Experiencing relationship problems
  • Having trouble at work or at school
  • Not being able to take care of your responsibilities

Have you noticed any of the above in your own life? If you have, and you're currently using drugs, you may have an addiction.

If the drugs you're using are one of the gateway drugs on the list, you may try to reason wit yourself. You may tell yourself that what you're doing is harmless. You may try to convince yourself that there's no need to be concerned. There is a very real need to be concerned. If you continue to use, and your addiction progresses, it could be devastating. Gateway drug use frequently leads to harder drug use.

Risk Factors for Gateway Drug Use

There are people who are determined to be more susceptible to gateway drug use than others. The following are at a higher than average risk for addiction to gateway drugs:

  • Teens and Young Adults
  • People with Mental Illnesses
  • People with PTSD
  • People with Family Histories of Addiction

People who Have Used Other Addictive Substances

This goes along with the Gateway Drug Theory. People who have prior addictions are often much more likely to use again. Many people will even work their way through all of the gateway drugs.

There are many environmental factors that make addiction to gateway drugs more likely. People who live in areas with high unemployment rates or poor housing conditions are more likely to use. Education levels and career levels also play a critical role. In fact, many executives will spend years hiding their addictions. Their jobs create such a vast amount of stress in their lives, and they use substances to cope. Also, teenagers often succumb to peer pressure when their friends want them to use drugs.

Help for Teens: Avoiding the Pressure to Use Gateway Drugs

For many teens, the pressure to use gateway drugs is very real. It's something they may deal with on a daily basis. They have friends who use, and those friends want them to join in. The question is, how can they avoid that pressure.

Teens and Drug Addiction

If you're a teenager who is being pressured into using drugs, you don't have to give in. There are several things you can do to avoid it.

  • Spend time with a different group of people. This might be difficult. However, any friend of yours should not be pressuring you to use drugs. He or she should respect your decision not to use. They should never try to get you to do anything you don't want to do. If the pressure is too much for you, make friends with others who don't use drugs.
  • Find a new hobby or activity. Boredom is one of the reasons why teens turn to drug use. You can avoid getting bored by trying something new and different to you. Maybe there's a sport you always wanted to play, or a club you've been thinking about joining. Get involved and you'll protect yourself from drugs.
  • Don't be afraid to walk away. Sometimes the opportunity to use drugs can present itself when you're not ready. You might be hanging out with friends after school. You might be at a party. You don't even need to make an excuse. Just get out of the situation. Leave immediately, and never question your decision to do so.
  • Find an adult you trust. Talk with this person and share your concerns. Adults have access to resources that you don't. They're much wiser, and chances are that they've been in this situation before themselves. They can help to guide you through it.

It's certainly not easy to be a teenager who is being pressured to use drugs. However, just because you're being pressured, you don't have to give in. Use the above tips to help yourself out of these situations.

Teens are certainly not strangers to addictive behaviors. In fact, young people are much more prone to them than adults are. According to Growing Leaders, there are ten common addictions for teens. As you read these, please pay close attention to the first three.

  • Alcohol
  • Smoking
  • Drugs
  • Social media
  • Gambling
  • Sex
  • Shopping
  • Eating
  • Video games
  • The Internet

You’re probably not surprised. Teens are easily influenced, and many of them will try anything once. If they like something, they’re likely to do it again. The question is, what is a parent to do? How is a parent supposed to successfully navigate the treacherous teenage years? This is something that every parent has to ask.

Maintaining open and honest communication between yourself and your child is the key. No one wants to talk about drugs or alcohol with their child. It might not be something you ever imagined yourself having to do. However, it is so important if you hope to prevent substance abuse problems.

There are a lot of reasons why using gateway drugs seems interesting and desirable to young people. Older teenagers are much more at risk than younger ones, according to Psychology Today. For this age group, they’re likely to begin using drugs because:

  • They’re trying out their independence
  • They have a hard time managing their new responsibilities
  • They’re afraid of what the future holds
  • They spend time with others who also use substances
  • They may have access to illegal substances
  • They’re lonely because they no longer live at home

Regardless of the reasons behind their drug use, gateway drugs are dangerous. They can easily lead to more serious problems down the road.

Ways to Prevent Addiction to Gateway Drugs

Perhaps you're a teen or an adult who has already been using gateway drugs. You can tell by the list of symptoms above that you don't yet have an addiction. You need to know the best ways to prevent that from happening.

First and foremost, stop using immediately. If you're not addicted, that shouldn't be difficult for you to do.

You should consider talking with someone about whether or not you need help. There are many ways to get help for drug abuse. Talking with a therapist about why you feel you need to use drugs is a great place to begin. Narcotics Anonymous can also provide you with a great support group to help you.

Finally, make some positive changes in your life. If you used to go to church, consider going back. Make new friends who are drug-free. Get involved in activities where drug use won't be an option. These changes can help you to stay away from drugs completely.

What to Expect During Addiction Recovery

When you enter a drug treatment program, it's normal to be unsure about what will happen. You may feel nervous or anxious about getting started with treatment. There's really no need to be concerned.

Everyone's drug treatment is different, because everyone has different needs. However, you can expect:

  • To become involved in group therapy These will help to provide you with peer encouragement and counseling.
  • To work with a therapist in individual therapy This will help you learn why you became addicted to drugs.
  • To have family therapysessions with your loved ones. This will help to improve your relationships with them.
  • To participate in other forms of therapy, according to your needs.
  • To go through drug detox if your drug of choice requires it, or it is recommended for you.

Drug Rehab is Available for You if You're Addicted to Gateway Drugs

After going through all of this information, it's possible that you fall into this category. You know that you're currently using one or more gateway drugs. Perhaps you thought that you were using them for fun. You never thought that it could have harmful consequences for you down the road. So many people share those same feelings.

Most people don't expect their gateway drug use to progress further. They assume that they'll continue to use the same drug or drugs until they're ready to stop. Unfortunately, that is not at all how addiction works. You've seen the proof in the statistics that gateway drug use is likely to lead to the use of harder drugs. The good news is that this doesn't have to be your story. However, in order to avoid it, it's important to make a decision to do something about it now.

At Northpoint Recovery, we offer help for those who are addicted to gateway drugs. We understand that you might be scared or nervous about reaching out for help. In fact, your first response might be to try and stop using on your own. Attempting this is dangerous for you, for a few reasons.

First of all, most people who attempt to stop using any type of drug on their own are not successful. They end up failing, and going back to using. They experience withdrawal symptoms, and that's not something they're prepared to handle. They return to their drug of choice because they need relief. This behavior tends to happen over and over again. It can lead to a dangerous addiction cycle. What you're actually doing is teaching your brain that it's right to be dependent upon drugs.

Secondly, you put yourself at risk for an overdose. In the event that you do relapse, you're likely to use the same amount of the drug that you were previously. By that time, your body's tolerance levels have probably drastically changed. Of course, there are some gateway drugs that are more dangerous in this way than others.

The best way for you to proceed is to get professional help.

If you’re like most people, the idea of getting help for your drug problem or alcohol problem is scary. For a teenager, it can feel like an impossible task. Please rest assured that it’s much safer than trying to quit on your own. In order to be successful, you need the best possible support you can find. That’s what you’ll get when you go to treatment.

Drug rehab offers you hope for recovery that you can't find any other way. You'll receive all the support you need in this environment. Best of all, you'll stop your use of gateway drugs before it progresses to a type of addiction that's much worse.

Are you addicted to gateway drugs? Are you looking for drug treatment? Please contact us today so that we can help you.

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