A popular theory backed by some evidence is that the use of certain intoxicating and habit-forming substances considered less harmful than others can progress into the use of more potent and addictive drugs. Such substances associated with increasingly intense drug use are commonly referred to as “gateway drugs.”
The Gateway Drug Theory
Gateway drugs are substances believed by some to open the door to the abuse of extremely dangerous and powerful addictive illicit drugs, such as heroin, meth, and cocaine. Nicotine, marijuana, prescription painkillers, and alcohol increase dopamine levels, which results in pleasure and feelings of reward. Gateway drugs are often associated with young people in their teens or college years.
The dopamine boost caused by gateway drugs before adulthood while the brain is still developing can later result in the decreased production of natural dopamine. This alteration in brain chemistry and function may encourage people to seek out more potent substances that cause much higher levels of dopamine. Some experts suggest that gateway drugs may also prepare the brain for a response to other substances, a process known as cross-sensitization.
Recent History and Controversy
Since the 1980s, America’s youth have been warned by educators and public service announcements about the potential dangers of experimenting with gateway drugs. For many years, intermediate school health educators have made gateway drugs a focus of their teachings. However, the debate regarding this theory has led some to reconsider the term and question whether it is at all helpful.
Officials at Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) now concede that most people who use marijuana do not progress to the use of more potent substances. Indeed, some critics of this argument believe that marijuana use may, in fact, deter people from using other drugs, although there is scant reliable evidence to support that claim.
Critics also assert that the gateway drug theory is flawed because it almost entirely relies on animal research. Also, drug use rates in some countries and regions do not appear to be impacted by marijuana’s prevalence.
Support for the Theory
For decades, champions of this theory have argued that certain substances, particularly marijuana, are gateway drugs. Conversely, critics maintain that no significant evidence exists to support the argument. Supporters refer to ample research that may add credibility to the theory.
For example, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (2016) found that teens who abuse gateway drugs are as much as 266 times more likely to acquire an addiction to cocaine than those who don’t. This same study found that nearly all cocaine users (90%) reported previously smoking cigarettes, using marijuana, and drinking alcohol before trying cocaine. Moreover, while no evidence solidly confirms the gateway drug argument, many trends proposed by research appear to lend some credibility to it.
Critics often stress that compulsive drug-using behavior is the product of various factors, including genetic makeup, family history, mental health disorders, childhood trauma, and home and community environments. Moreover, some critics conclude that gateway drugs are but one factor among many that contribute to an individual’s risk of experimenting with more potent and dangerous substances.
It’s also important to understand that adolescent substance abuse, regarding its form, can have a more significant impact on brain chemistry and function because the brains of young individuals are still developing. This effect means that severely (and perhaps permanently) altered brain chemistry and function could contribute to further drug use, even if the young person is motivated to get clean and sober.
Some reports have suggested there is support for this argument. For example, according to NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse), most young marijuana users stop using these drugs when they reach adulthood. However, with an increasing number of states and municipalities decriminalizing or legalizing medical or recreational marijuana use, this trend may be reversing.
What Are Common Gateway Drugs?
Alcohol, marijuana, and nicotine have long been referred to as the most common gateway drugs. In recent years, prescription drugs, such as opioids, and other common drugs, such as hallucinogens, anabolic steroids, and even caffeine, may be included in this category, depending on who you ask.
Alcohol is a CNS (central nervous system) depressant that can adversely alter brain functioning and impair motor skills. According to research findings, if the gateway drug theory is correct, alcohol serving as a gateway drug is, at the very least, arguable.
For instance, a study conducted at the University of Florida revealed that students who consumed alcohol may be 16 times more likely to abuse illegal substances, such as certain stimulants, later in life. Illicit substances associated with alcohol use include marijuana, cocaine, and opioids, especially heroin.
Multiple studies have revealed that drinking at a young age can influence drug use in adulthood. A study published in the Journal of School Health (2016) found that 6th-grade students who experimented with alcohol went on to try harder, illegal drugs later on in life.
Also, a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey found that minor drinkers were more likely to abuse illegal drugs within two hours of alcohol consumption than legal drinkers.
Marijuana is a drug that can alter a person’s attention, memory, motivation, and ability to learn. Currently, marijuana is the most commonly used intoxicating substance in the U.S. next to alcohol. Although cannabis is probably the most widely accepted gateway drug, its contribution to the use of more powerful drugs has been hotly debated.
Many people contend that marijuana use can increase an individual’s tolerance for more potent drugs, and a few studies have suggested this assertion may be correct. For example, a study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that nearly one-half (45%) of regular marijuana users also abused another illicit drug later on in life. One of those drugs is heroin.
Research has found that most heroin users began their involvement with psychoactive substances by using marijuana or alcohol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), marijuana users are three times more likely than non-users to abuse heroin.
Per NIDA, an estimated 52 million Americans over age 12 have misused prescription drugs for non-medical or recreational purposes at some point in their lives, and opioid painkillers are the most commonly abused. Prescription drugs such as opioids have been strongly linked to heroin use, and no one is arguing against this fact.
Heroin and it’s illicit, synthetic cousins, such as fentanyl, have effects similar to prescriptions, although much more intense. Some persons who become addicted to opioid-based pharmaceuticals turn to illicit substances when they cannot afford or obtain their previous drug of choice. According to the CDC, opioid users are up to forty times more likely to abuse heroin than non-users.
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