What Are Gateway Drugs, & Should Parents Be Concerned?

gateway drug theory

The New York Times recently reported that the gateway drug theory is having a “comeback” – and new studies are supporting the notion that gateway drugs exist. As a parent whose son or daughter has smoked or drank before, should you be concerned? What’s Turnbridge’s take on the gateway drug theory? We detail our thoughts – and the science behind it – below.

What Are Gateway Drugs?

Gateway drugs are introductory, habit-forming substances that give way to more severe drug use down the road. They are typically milder, fairly-accessible substances – for example, alcohol or marijuana – that are first used in adolescence or young adulthood. These easy-to-get, easy-to-use drugs familiarize young users with first feelings of intoxication. Over time, it is thought that young users gain confidence and decide, “Hey, if I can handle this, what else can I try that will get me high?”

That’s where the gateway effect comes in – young users who try one drug are more likely to try more. Most often, the substances they take the second- or third- time around are stronger, with more risky side effects: heroin, prescription pills, cocaine. There is a science behind this.

Drugs like marijuana and alcohol boost a user’s dopamine levels, which therefore produces feelings of euphoria and pleasure. This is the “high” that first-time users experience. As they use more and more regularly, the user develops a tolerance and experiences less of the drug’s effect. This may lead some to seek out different drugs that cause a more dramatic high – which is often where addiction begins.

The gateway drug theory first surfaced and gained popularity in the 1980s – experts found that, when adolescents used “soft” drugs like tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana, their risk of using “hard” drugs – drugs typically perceived as more harmful – increased. As did their chance of developing an addiction to illicit substances such as opioids, cocaine, and methamphetamines later in life.

What is the Most Common Gateway Drug?

While many believe marijuana is the leading gateway drug, studies show that alcohol is actually the most popular substance tried among first-time users. According to the American Addiction Centers, nearly 66 percent of surveyed Americans reported alcohol as their first substance used, followed by tobacco and marijuana. Alcohol is typically initiated in adolescence, often in the form of binge drinking.

Is the Gateway Drug Theory True?

There is a ton of debate around whether gateway drugs actually exist. As a parent, you may be wondering if there is real cause for concern. Do treatment professionals stand by the gateway drug theory? Will your pot-smoking teen get addicted to heroin down the road? When should you worry?

The truth is, there are a lot of factors that can lead a person into drug use and addiction; it is not limited solely to prior use. Between 40 and 70 percent of a person’s risk for developing a substance use disorder is genetic. However, one of the biggest contributors of addiction, and one of the biggest players in the gateway drug theory, is age. The age in which a person initiates drugs or drinking can tell a lot about his or her propensity for drug problems later in life.

According to the recent Surgeon General’s Report, teens who first drink alcohol before age 15 are four times more likely to become addicted at some point in their lives than those who delay drinking until age 20 or older. Almost 70 percent of adolescents who try an illicit drug before age 13 develop a clinical addiction within the next seven years. Research by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse has also shown that adolescents who use any addictive substance before age 18 are about 6.5 times more likely to develop a clinical substance use disorder in life.

So, do gateway drugs exist? In adolescence and young adulthood – yes, they do. Every addictive drug is a gateway drug if used in this critical age window, while brain development is still underway.

Adolescence: The Gateway Period

The brain does not fully develop until a person’s mid-twenties – it is undergoing a lot of dynamic changes during the teenage and early adult years. Any drug or alcohol use before age 25 can disrupt the brain’s progress and pose great risk. As Turnbridge detailed in a recent infographic, any habits that happen during adolescence – both positive ones, such as algebra, or negative ones, such as drug use – are learned and stored.

Adolescence is also associated with heightened levels of dopamine activity. There’s more dopamine in the brain’s reward center in early adolescence than at any other point in life. This causes teens to go out and seek rewarding, pleasurable experiences, such as experimenting with new drugs. Not to mention, the parts of the brain dedicated to decision-making, self-control, and judgement are the last to fully mature. Teens and young adults are therefore more likely to make hasty decisions, act on impulse, and try drugs, without foreseeing the consequences.

The consensus? Any adolescent drug use increases the chances of harder, more severe drug use and addiction later in life – so, in a sense, adolescence is a gateway in itself.

If your son or daughter has concerning drinking or drug-using habits, it’s important to take action now. Drug use can have a massive impact on teens and young adults, and early intervention is imperative to their long-term health. Get the help your child deserves by contacting a teen or young adult rehab center like Turnbridge. We have long-term, integrated, evidence-based treatment programs for young people battling addiction and mental health disorders – we provide a gateway for change, for success, for happiness and health. Call us at 877-581-1793 to learn more.