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. Experts estimate that 1 in 7 Americans will have a problem with drug or alcohol addiction. So, could experimentation with gateway drugs be to blame for this?

People claim 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 Are Gateway Drugs?

A gateway drug can be any substance that has the potential to lead you to try more potent or even 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 medications like hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, and morphine. Opioids are also some 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 specific 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

The Dangers of Gateway Drugs infographic

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 addiction.

Certain conditions 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 available 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 even 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 concerning 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, which then alters 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.

Common Gateway Drugs

Alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, and nicotine are usually referred to as gateway drugs. In more recent years, illegal opiates and other household substances have been classified as gateway drugs.


Alcohol is a depressant of the central nervous system that impairs motor skills and brain function. A study in 2014 showed that approximately 88 percent of adults had consumed alcohol, and nearly 25 percent have been binge drinking within the past month. According to the results of multiple studies, alcohol is presumably a gateway drug.

A study at the University of Florida discovered that students who consumed alcohol were 16 times more prone to use illicit drugs like cocaine and amphetamines. Numerous students started with socially acceptable substances like cigarettes or alcohol before using marijuana and harder drugs.

Illicit substances linked to alcohol use include:

  • Opioids
  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin

Many studies had revealed that drinking alcohol at a young age influences drug use eventually. Another survey revealed that underage drinkers are more prone to use illegal drugs within two hours of alcohol consumption than legal alcohol drinkers. A majority of teenage alcohol drinkers had also used illegal drugs like marijuana.


Marijuana is a plant-based substance that alters a user’s memory, attention, motivation, and learning abilities. In 2014, the NIDA declared that more than 22 million people stated they had used marijuana within the past month, making it the most used drug in the U.S.

For decades, marijuana has commonly referred to as a gateway drug. However, its connection to harder drugs has been extensively debated. Individual studies have shown that many people assume marijuana builds user’s tolerance to more potent drugs—one of those drugs being heroin. Studies have shown that most heroin users started with alcohol or marijuana. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, marijuana users are three times more likely than non-users to begin using heroin.   

Illegal substances connected to marijuana use include:

A report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration stated that adolescents who use marijuana are more likely to use harder drugs. Teens who used marijuana heavily in the past month were:

  • 20 times more likely to use ecstasy
  • 30 times more likely to use crack cocaine
  • 15 times more likely to abuse prescription painkillers
  • 14 times more likely to abuse over-the-counter medications

Another study found that people who used marijuana by age 17 were up to five times more likely to undergo substance abuse later on in life than people who did not. It also found that alternative factors, like social anxiety, depression, and parental conflicts, had an insignificant impact on the effects. This means that environmental circumstances are the leading cause of substance abuse.

But, a report by the Journal of Health and Social Behavior determined that marijuana’s influence as a gateway drug is conditional on factors like marital or employment status, and other lifestyle situations. It does, though, imply a moderate relationship between marijuana use and other illegal drug abuse.

Prescription Drugs

Within the last decade, prescription drug abuse has become a top substance addiction across the nation. The NIDA stated that approximately 52 million U.S citizens, ages 12 and older had used prescription drugs for non-medical purposes in their lifetime. Opioids being the most commonly abused prescription drugs.

Prescription drugs are linked as a gateway to heroin use. Heroin is a synthesized opioid that is cut with other prescription meds, like Fentanyl, to produce a more potent effect. Many prescription drugs have effects similar to heroin, which leads to many opioid addicts transitioning to it. Fentanyl and heroin are some of the most lethal drugs, causing thousands of overdose deaths each year.

Illegal substances connected to prescription drug use include:

  • Cocaine
  • Heroin

The CDC stated that opioid users are 40 times more prone to abuse heroin than non-users. In comparison, alcoholics were two times more prone to abuse heroin than non-drinkers. Marijuana users were three times more prone to abuse heroin. According to NIDA, nearly half of adolescent heroin users stated they were abusing prescription opioids first. Many opioid addicts switch to heroin because it is cheaper, stronger, and more convenient to get.

Prescription medications administered to children with ADHD, like Ritalin and Adderal, have been connected to cocaine use. Both substances are stimulants, which enhance productivity and alertness. Both have comparable properties that boost dopamine levels. Consequentially, Adderal and Ritalin users become more receptive to cocaine abuse.


Research has long acknowledged tobacco products are gateway drugs. Scientists in 2011 had fed rat’s nicotine-laced water for seven days. The results had revealed that the rats had a heightened response to cocaine afterward.

Illicit substances widely linked to nicotine use include:

  • Cocaine
  • Marijuana
  • Heroin

The study also discovered that nicotine increases levels of FosB, a gene in the brain connected to cocaine cravings. Researchers believe a similar effect occurs in the minds of humans who share the gene, and that children are primarily at risk.

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 more potent 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 addiction signs 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 medication. 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 Lead To Addiction: Professional Detox

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 critical 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. Coastal Detox can get you or your loved one onto the road to recovery. With our recovery facilities with special treatment programs, we can help to stop the cycle of addiction for good. Do not hesitate any longer, contact us today for an evaluation.