Which Drugs Are Considered Gateway Drugs, And Why?

gateway drugs

For some, it starts as a single hit of marijuana or a shot of alcohol at a party. This can then spiral into a vicious cycle of cravings, dependence, and addiction.

It’s estimated that 1 in 7 Americans will have a problem with substance addiction. So, could experimentation with a gateway drug be to blame for this?

It’s said that certain substances open the door to experimenting with harsher drugs. So, what’s the truth behind this and which drugs pose this risk?

Here’s everything you need to know about the dangers of gateway drugs.

What Is a Gateway Drug?

A gateway drug can be any substance that has the potential to lead you to try stronger or more illicit drugs.

Many people question, is marijuana a gateway drug? Marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco products all get considered gateway drugs.

Prescription pills are also in this group of drugs, with the recent opioid epidemic. This includes drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, and morphine. Opioids are also one of the hardest to quit drugs once a person starts using them.

These “starter” substances are legal in most states. Yet, there is the exception of marijuana laws in certain locations. This makes it easier for adolescents to get access to these gateway drugs.

Teens and adults may use these gateway drugs in a social setting to loosen themselves up. These drugs can also provide a sense of euphoria or a way to numb emotions.

The Slippery Slope of Gateway Drugs

So, what are gateway drugs and why are they so dangerous? Gateway drugs are often the first substance that a person tries. Experimenting with these drugs can then lead to dependence or addiction.

There are also certain conditions that impact the likelihood of developing an addiction. Environmental and genetic factors can cause a person to experiment with gateway drugs. This includes peer pressure, issues or influences at home, and a history of a family addition.

How accessible drugs are in one’s environment also comes into play. Suffering from a mental illness, such as depression, also increases the risk. Students who experience bullying may also find themselves suffering from substance abuse.

A person’s age when they begin using gateway drugs can also contribute to problems with abuse. Younger adolescents who start using alcohol before the age of 15 are four times more likely to have issues with alcoholism later on in life. That answers any question about is alcohol a gateway drug?

The issue with gateway drugs comes when the experimentation phase becomes a habit. This can lead to long-term use and physical dependence. It also leaves many people turning to harsher drugs to chase a high.

Adolescents who use gateway drugs have a 266 times greater risk of ending up using cocaine. This is in comparison with those who do not use gateway drugs.

As much as 90% of cocaine users also report using each of these gateway drugs in their past. Heroin and meth are other illicit substances that gateway drug users may turn to.

The Gateway Drug Theory, Explained

The Gateway Drug Theory has been around since the 1970s. It supports the idea that using gateway drugs impacts one’s decision to use harder drugs later on.

This is in relation to the effect that drugs have on the pleasure center of the brain. Using these drugs increases dopamine levels, causing a person to crave the high.

This can alter brain activity to prepare it for responding better to different drugs. It can rewire the brain and also lower dopamine levels later on in life.

It’s not always guaranteed that someone using gateway drugs will turn to harder drugs. A person’s lifestyle and environmental factors can increase the risk though.

What Are the Dangers of Using Gateway Drugs?

Alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine often build up tolerance levels in the body. This can cause people to begin seeking a stronger high. They will then use more of the drug or turn to harder drugs to achieve this.

Risk of Addiction

These habits are how physical and mental dependence begin to occur. This then leads to addiction, abuse, and symptoms of withdrawal. If in doubt, here are a few signs of addiction to be on the lookout for.

Overdose and Death

Prescription pills are also highly addicting and can lead to heroin use. This poses the risk of overdose and death for those who abuse opioids.

The synthetic opioid Fentanyl can be 50 times stronger than heroin. It’s also responsible for the staggering increase in drug deaths in America. Many illegal drug manufacturers are also adding Fentanyl to other drugs like cocaine and heroin, with deadly effects.

Mislabeled and Laced Drugs

Many people who buy illegal street drugs may also be getting sold a different type of drug. These mislabeled drugs can get laced with other substances, like ketamine.

Compulsive and Risky Behaviors

Using gateway drugs at an early age also introduces habit-forming and compulsive behaviors. These substances interfere with a person’s judgment and rational decision-making process.

They may engage in risky behaviors. This includes driving under the influence or having unprotected sex. People may also mix drugs and alcohol to enhance the effects, which can be deadly.

Addiction can also spur domestic abuse. It can cause trouble with keeping a job or the damaging of relationships. It’s a dangerous cycle that can quickly leave a person’s life spinning out of control.

Health Risks

There are also many long-term side effects and health risks to be aware of. Even legal drugs impact the nervous system and brain functions. They can also cause heart, liver, and kidney damage.

When Gateway Drugs Turn to Addiction

Gateway drugs may not always lead to a substance abuse problem. Yet for some people, they can turn from habit to full-on addiction. They can also pave the way to using harder and more illicit drugs, with disastrous results.

This makes it more important than ever to be cautious of the warning signs of addiction. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, it’s time to get help.

Recovery facilities with special treatment programs work to stop the cycle of addiction. Learn more about how Coastal Detox can get you or your loved one onto the road to recovery.

References:

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/marijuana/marijuana-gateway-drug

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK234579/  

https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa63/aa63.htm

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/03/21/704557684/fentanyl-linked-deaths-the-u-s-opioid-epidemics-third-wave-begins 

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/11/17/surgeon-general-1-7-us-face-substance-addiction/93993474/ 

http://www.columbia.edu/cu/record/archives/vol20/vol20_iss10/record2010.24.html

 

Content Reviewed by Jacklyn Steward

Jacklyn StewardJacklyn is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and an EMDR trained trauma therapy specialist with over 6 years of experience in the field of addiction. She has a Masters Degree in Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling from Nova Southeastern University.