Three Facts About the Dangers of Gateway Drugs

Despite significant research to the contrary, many people do not believe in the concept of gateway drugs or that the use of “softer” drugs could lead to “harder” drug use. To be discussed are several variables and risk factors involved in increased risk for more problematic drug use after using gateway drugs. 

Gateway Drugs And Addiction

Substance abuse disorders don’t happen overnight; they develop over time, as people who abuse drugs become increasingly dependent on these substances. The path to addiction often starts with the experimentation of so-called soft drugs like marijuana, nicotine, and alcohol.

A considerable body of evidence supports the concept of some “soft” drugs acting as gateway drugs—substances perceived as harmless whose use acclimates individuals to the recreational use of drugs and often leads to the use of and dependence on stronger or more potent drugs.

Research with rats has shown that nicotine had a priming effect on the brain, making it more susceptible to cocaine use later on. 

Gateway Drugs And Teenagers

Counselors at addiction treatment centers hear the stories every day of how teenage experimentation with alcohol or pot started addicts down a road that often ends up with addicts losing their jobs, losing their families, and losing their health and freedom.

Gateway drugs are especially dangerous to teens, the age group most likely to try these substances because their developing minds and bodies are most at risk from drug abuse.

Consider these statistics from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia:

  • Marijuana smokers who began smoking under the age of 18 are 85 times more likely to use cocaine than children who never use marijuana.
  • Children who drink are much more likely to “graduate” to marijuana and cocaine. About 90 percent of children who use marijuana began using alcohol before trying pot. Children who use alcohol are 50 times more likely than non-drinkers to use illicit substances like cocaine and develop Alcohol Use Disorder.
  • Using gateway drugs normalizes drug use among teens and makes it more likely they will experiment with more dangerous substances. Many teens, having tried marijuana and suffering no immediate consequences, will up the ante by seeking out new substances with which to experiment that are much more dangerous and addictive.

In answering the question are gateway drugs addicting, the resounding answer is yes.

Why People Start Using Gateway Drugs

It has been our clinical experience at Wellness Center NJ that the reasons why people choose to begin using gateway drugs vary with age.  For example, adolescents, teens, and individuals in their early 20’s are usually using substances to cover up emerging mental health symptoms or social reasons.  Adults are generally introduced to gateway drugs as a way to deal with stress or the negative feelings resulting from one or more untreated mental health disorders.

Not Everyone Goes On To Harder Drugs

Not everyone who tries a gateway drug will try other drugs, a fact often used to undermine the “gateway theory.” Despite no clear connection between gateway drug use and latter narcotic use, researchers have uncovered factors that increase an individual’s chance of moving on to harder drugs.  These factors include:

  • Genetic predisposition[1]
  • Higher frequency of cannabis use[2]
  • Early-onset of cannabis use[3]
  • Presence of depressive symptoms[4]
  • High rates of stress[5]
  • Unemployment[6]
  • Drug availability[7]

One research study by the National Institue of Health found that 44.7% of people who used cannabis progressed to harder drugs.    The chart below shows years since first cannabis use and the cumulative probability on the vertical axis. 

Figure 1

Cumulative probability of other illicit drug use initiation among individuals with lifetime history of cannabis use

Regarding socioeconomic data in specific, the same research study as above found the following indicative of future hard drug us after initial gateway drug use; a statistically high proportion of those who latter moved onto hard drugs were:

  • Male
  • S. born
  • lived in the city
  • had less than high school education

The table below summarizes socioeconomic factors contributing to the progression of gateway drugs to other illegal drugs. 

Table1[8]

The proportion of individuals with lifetime cannabis used who progressed to the use of other illicit drugs, by sociodemographic characteristics

Characteristics

Any Drug Use a (n=2572)

 

%

95%CIb

Gender

     

Male

42.71

40.65

44.80

Female

34.98

32.82

37.20

Age group

     

18-29

38.53

35.56

41.60

30-44

43.75

41.49

46.04

≥45

33.25

30.53

36.08

Race/ethnicity

     

Whites

40.54

38.82

42.28

Blacks

25.17

22.02

28.60

Hispanics

43.07

38.64

47.61

Asians

43.68

34.74

53.06

Native American

47.87

39.25

56.62

Urbanicity

     

Rural

36.11

32.67

39.69

Urban

40.05

38.28

41.85

US Born

     

Yes

39.76

38.12

41.41

No

32.36

27.06

38.16

Education

     

< High school

43.25

38.64

47.97

High school

39.58

36.42

42.84

≥ College

38.70

36.89

40.55

Marital Status

     

Married/living with someone

37.57

35.57

39.62

Divorced/separated

43.10

39.41

46.87

Widowed

33.51

22.24

47.04

Never married

41.63

38.66

44.66

Employment status

     

Ever employed

39.93

38.17

41.73

Never employed

37.40

34.40

40.50

aSedatives, tranquilizers, painkillers, stimulants, cocaine or crack, hallucinogens, inhalants/solvents, heroin, and other,

b95% confidence interval.

A protective factor which emerged from research involves users of mental health services in adolescence being less likely to use drugs later on.  Other protective factors included a stable support system, consistent employment, and level of education. 

There is a way back for addicts who have walked the road from gateway drugs to harder drugs. Wellness Center NJ provides drug and alcohol detoxification and treatment services, providing a safe and supportive environment that will help substance abusers successfully detox and begin putting their lives back together after detox.  Learn more about our addiction treatment therapies.

Citations

  1. A twin study of early cannabis use and subsequent use and abuse/dependence of other illicit drugs.  Agrawal A, Neale MC, Prescott CA, Kendler KS Psychol Med. 2004 Oct; 34(7):1227-37.
  1. Does cannabis use encourage other forms of illicit drug use?  Fergusson DM, Horwood LJ Addiction. 2000 Apr; 95(4):505-20.
  1. Cannabis use and other illicit drug use: testing the cannabis gateway hypothesis.  Fergusson DM, Boden JM, Horwood LJ Addiction. 2006 Apr; 101(4):556-69.
  1. Patterns of drug use from adolescence to young adulthood: III. Predictors of progression.  Yamaguchi K, Kandel DB Am J Public Health. 1984 Jul; 74(7):673-81.
  1. A Life-course Perspective on the “Gateway Hypothesis”.  Van Gundy K, Rebellon CJ J Health Soc Behav. 2010 Sep; 51(3):244-59.
  1. Into the world of illegal drug use: exposure opportunity and other mechanisms linking the use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and cocaine.  Wagner FA, Anthony JC Am J Epidemiol. 2002 May 15; 155(10):918-25.
  1. Degenhardt L, Dierker L, Chiu WT, Medina-Mora ME, Neumark Y, Sampson N, Alonso J, Angermeyer M, Anthony JC, Bruffaerts R, de Girolamo G, de Graaf R, Gureje O, Karam AN, Kostyuchenko S, Lee S, Lépine JP, Levinson D, Nakamura Y, Posada-Villa J, Stein D, Wells JE, Kessler RC Drug Alcohol Depend. 2010 Apr 1; 108(1-2):84-97.
  1. Secades-Villa R, Garcia-Rodríguez O, Jin CJ, Wang S, Blanco C. Probability and predictors of the cannabis gateway effect: a national study. Int J Drug Policy. 2015;26(2):135-142. doi:10.1016/j.drugpo.2014.07.011

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