Are ‘Gateway Drugs’ A Real Thing? (The Science)

Medically Reviewed

The United States is in the middle of one of the worst addiction and overdose epidemics it’s ever seen. But this isn’t the first time an illicit psychoactive substance has wreaked havoc on public health. In the 1980s and 1990s, cocaine and crack addiction spread across communities in a similar way that opioids are a problem today.

In the 1980s, psychologist and anti-drug advocate Robert DuPont coined the term gateway drug in reference to marijuana.

He has also called marijuana “the most dangerous drug” because it’s widely used and seems to have a connection with illicit drug dependence later in life.

Since the drug epidemic of the ʼ80s, it has become common knowledge that marijuana is a dangerous gateway drug that leads to illicit drug dependence, addiction, and potential overdose. Even though its effects aren’t as dangerous as some other illicit drugs, and it doesn’t cause chemical dependence, it can lead to the use of more dangerous substances.

But is that true?

The gateway drug theory has encountered some controversy since it was first coined. Some believe that addiction later in life is more complex, and there may be more relevant factors involved. Learn more about marijuana, the gateway drug theory, and whether or not it actually holds water.

What Is the Gateway Drug Theory?

The gateway drug theory, also called the stepping-stone theory, is the idea that using psychoactive substances can increase the risk of further drug use and addiction.

In other words, if a person uses drugs that are comparatively mild, they may progress to the use of more dangerous drugs in the future. The theory could be explained by biological alterations in the brain that make you more susceptible to the use and abuse of other drugs. The theory has been most commonly tied to marijuana use. It’s the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States.

It’s also one of the most common substances used by adolescents, which means it’s a drug that many people use during developmental stages. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 43 percent of 12th-graders have tried marijuana at some point during their lifetime, and 5 percent use it daily.

Researchers have investigated the gateway drug theory, and they have continued to do so over several decades since it was first theorized. It has pretty significant implications for addiction treatment, policy making, and addiction prevention if it’s true.

In terms of legislation, it has been used to outlaw substances that don’t have a strong tie to chemical dependence or addiction, because it may lead to those consequences indirectly.

As marijuana is decriminalized, used for medicinal purposes, and legalized, it’s still considered a Schedule I drug on the federal level. Alcohol and cigarettes have also been identified as potential gateway drugs.

The Gateway Drug Controversy

The gateway drug theory is largely supported by statistical research that shows a link between drug or alcohol use and later drug or alcohol addiction. Studies have looked at people who have developed substance use disorders and found that early exposure to drugs like alcohol and marijuana was a significant risk factor for later substance use disorders.

However, several factors can account for this that don’t necessarily mean that specific substances cause biological changes in the brain that lead to harder drug abuse.

For instance, it’s possible that people who smoke marijuana have other common factors that also lead them to use other drugs later. According to NIDA, addiction is caused by many factors, and it’s difficult to pinpoint one cause, even in an individual case. It can be caused by genetic, environmental, and developmental factors.

People who live in areas with greater access to illicit marijuana may also have greater access to other drugs.

It could also be that using drugs or alcohol with limited or no consequences can cause someone to be more willing to try harder drugs. Things like parental monitoring, anti-drug policies at school, and a strong sense of community can be protective factors against addiction.

On the other hand, a neighborhood with high drug availability and a lack of parental monitoring can lead to underage drinking, marijuana use, and harder drug use.

The most significant criticism of the gateway drug theory is that marijuana and alcohol use may be related correlated with harder illicit drug use, but they aren’t necessarily causes. Instead, it’s possible that both soft and hard drug use are the effects of another common cause.

The Facts About Soft and Hard Drug Use

With so many people using marijuana and alcohol, and only a small number of them using drugs like heroin and cocaine later in life, it’s clear other factors are at play. Still, that doesn’t mean early alcohol or marijuana use isn’t one of those factors.

For instance, a 2008 study showed that some people with no history of conduct problems were at increased risk of substance use disorders, STDs, early pregnancy, and crime.

The National Institutes of Health’s study concluded by saying, “Efforts to reduce or delay early substance exposure may prevent a wide range of adult health problems and should not be restricted to adolescents who are already at risk.”

Another study found that alcohol seemed to cause the most significant gateway drug effect, even over other substances like marijuana and nicotine.

At the same time, it can’t be assumed that marijuana and alcohol use will definitely cause an addiction problem or even illicit drug use. Instead, substance use disorders are multifaceted issues that require complex solutions.

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