Gateway Drugs: Fact or Fiction?

10/11/18: Addiction Prevention

What Are Gateway Drugs?

Gateway drugs is a term used to describe some lighter drugs, such as marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol that lead to a higher likelihood of using more addictive drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and club drugs. These drugs are also called habit-forming drugs, as they pave the way for hard drug use and eventually, drug addiction. The young drug users who take gateway drugs for recreational purposes are likely to do and abuse hard drugs later in life.

The Theory of Gateway Drugs

According to the gateway drug theory, gateway drugs including marijuana, nicotine, and alcohol increase the levels of dopamine in the body upon consumption, offering increased pleasure. The dopamine boost caused by these drugs in the adolescent brain makes the brain release less dopamine during adulthood. This is the reason why people are prone to seeking harder drugs later in life, as per the gateway drug theory. Another noteworthy effect of gateway drugs on the brain is a process called cross-sensitization. These milder drugs basically prepare the brain to respond to other substances. This makes the brain activity to skyrocket and hence, makes the users susceptible to seeking stronger drugs. In general, drug abuse is a behavior triggered by a number of environmental and biological factors. Your genetic makeup, family history, community, and environment combined determine your risk and likelihood of trying drugs. Gateway drugs seem to be one crucial factor that affects the risk of taking drugs that are more dangerous.

The History of Gateway Drugs

Gateway DrugsThe idea of stages-based drug use emerged in the mid-20th century. Concepts like marijuana use leading to potential heroin addiction started taking roots. It was in the 1980s only when researchers first started using the term ‘gateway drugs’ for substances that seemed to initiate the stages of drug use. Soon after, they started conducting different studies on gateway drugs. According to a report published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescents in 1985, alcohol served as the stepping stone to the use of drugs that were more powerful. During the next three decades, researchers intrigued by the unique properties of gateway drugs, conducted several pieces of research. Since the 1980s, the use of these drugs has been labeled as dangerous for students. The use of three potential gateway drugs: marijuana, tobacco, and alcohol have been known to have dangerous consequences ever since.


Marijuana is perhaps the most popular and consistent gateway drug. Many users who abuse hard drugs today admit to taking marijuana in their early drug-using days. Young people who abuse marijuana are two to five times more likely to take dangerous substances when they grow older. A study conducted by The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that adolescents who used marijuana were 85 percent more likely to abuse cocaine in later life than those who refrained.


Tobacco is perhaps the least identified gateway drug. There seems to be a weak correlation between the use of tobacco in the early life and the use of hard drugs later in life. However, there still are some hard drug users who have tied back their early drug days with the use of tobacco. Therefore, tobacco remains in the category of gateway drugs.


Most people do not consider alcohol as a drug. In fact, alcohol is more widely used among people than tobacco. One common reason behind alcohol being a gateway drug today is social events. Typically, at an event where alcohol is being served, there is always someone with some other drug to offer. Blame either intoxication or peer pressure, but this is how many people start taking marijuana and other harmful drugs.

What Do the Statistics Say?

Studies reveal that more than 90 percent of hard drug users started by using milder drugs in the first place. Several studies conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University back up the hypothesis that the use of gateway drugs eventually leads to the use of hard drugs.
  • Nearly 90 percent of people who used cocaine had first tried tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana
  • Adults who take the three gateway drugs are 323 times more likely to use cocaine
  • Adults who use one of these gateway drugs are 104 times more likely to use cocaine
  • Children who either use marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol are 77 times more likely to take cocaine
  • 12-17 years old who use the three gateway drugs are up to 266 times more likely to take a hard drug like cocaine
  • Children who took marijuana were 85 times more likely to use heroin
  • If a child starts using gateway drugs at an early age, they are 13 times more likely to take heroin later in life

Saying No to Gateway Drugs

Considering there is a popular debate on whether gateway drugs use leads to abusing hard drugs in later life or not. Despite there being no guarantee that you will start taking drugs that are more potent in the future if you use gateway drugs today, you should consider saying no to these drugs. Learn to say no if your friends or anyone you know offers you any – trust us, it gets easier after the first few times. Tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana are all unhealthy for your body and can become an addiction. While you, most certainly, can disregard the hypothesis that taking gateway drugs potentially leads to the use of drugs that are more addictive and dangerous to health as a myth, you cannot ignore the fact that these drugs are addictive and can cause serious health damage. If you or someone you know struggles with drug addiction or substance abuse, consider getting some help from a drug rehabilitation center today to welcome a brighter and happier tomorrow. Arizona Addiction is a qualified treatment center where licensed professionals await to help you climb the ladder to the sobriety journey. Content for Arizona Addiction by Cohn Media, LLC. Passionate and creative writing and broadcasting, covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment and technology. Advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.

If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact 602-737-1619 or email [email protected] to get the help you need. Our acclaimed recovery environment merges upscale, luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare.

Recent Posts