Gateway Drugs: Fact or Myth?

Anyone who has been to a high school assembly about abstinence from drugs and the dangers of early drug use has more than likely heard the expression “gateway drug.” Those assemblies would often include a life story from an individual who is in recovery and almost did not survive their battle with addiction. Many of those individuals may claim that their “problem” with drugs began with recreational drug use, starting with what some consider “harmless” substances like marijuana.

Unfortunately, the path for those individuals did lead to life-long issues with drug use, but the truth is that’s not always the case for everyone. Is gateway drug use really a thing, and if so, does that one joint you smoked at a high school party when you were 16-years-old have the potential to trigger substance use disorder (SUD)? Or, could it be that some individuals are simply more susceptible to falling victim to addiction or SUD due to their social, biological, and environmental factors? Opinions on the subject may vary, but if your struggle with addiction is severe enough, avoiding all substance use may be something you would want to consider very seriously.

Studies on Gateway Drug Hypotheses

Research has evaluated the correlations between early drug use in adolescence and illegal drug use in adulthood. The connection between this early drug use and illicit drug use during adulthood is commonly referred to as the gateway theory. An article from Preventive Medicine Reports (PMR) regarding gateway drug hypotheses used 14 years’ worth of data to “assess the relationship between gateway drugs at baseline (age 11-20 years) and drug use in adulthood using generalized estimating equation (GEE) regression models.” According to that study, the relationships between “gateway drugs,” such as marijuana and illegal drugs like cocaine in older adolescents were not consistent further into adulthood.

Additionally, concerning depressive symptoms, this same study indicated that “changes in the pattern of psychoactive drug use were important predictors of drug use in adulthood.” Those with a history of experiencing depressive symptoms showcased a higher potential of using psychoactive drugs. In contrast, adolescents who did not utilize health services were less likely to use drugs later on in life. As a whole, the gateway hypothesis has not been able to on its own explain the correlation between early drug use and drug use in adulthood.

Gateway Drug Use vs. Prone to Addiction

Initial drug use is often voluntary, but people do not simply choose to become dependent on drugs or any substance. The National Institute on Drug Use (NIH) defines addiction as a “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use despite adverse consequences.” It is considered a brain disorder because long-term drug use physically affects the brain in ways that can last for extended periods even after an individual has ceased drug use. A common question that some may ask is, “are gateway drugs truly a thing, or are some people simply more susceptible to fall ill to addiction or drug use due to environmental and biological factors?”

People who have a history of addiction, SUD, or alcoholism may be more prone to developing these illnesses in their own lives. While genetic factors can account for a percentage of someone’s vulnerability to addiction, it can also be their environment that makes them more vulnerable. Often an upbringing surrounded by substance use and frequent abuse or neglect has more of an influence on a person, and while many times they can learn from their family’s mistakes, there are also times when they follow in those same footsteps.

Social Susceptibility

If your parents ever told you to choose your friends wisely, there was probably a good reason for it. The people we hang around with, especially in our youth, significantly influence our choices. It’s common for people first to be introduced and accept invitations to a recreational drug like marijuana among their friends or peers to look cool or fit in. Sometimes those friendships grow apart as we grow up, but this introduction to substance use can lead down a darker path for those more susceptible.

At first, recreational drug use may seem harmless, but it becomes an extremely slippery slope when people begin using it to feel better, do better, or numb the pain in their lives. The fact remains that we may never be able to put the entire gateway drug hypothesis to rest, as there is no evidence yet that shows everyone using a gateway drug falls ill to addiction. Still, in general, we must learn to be cautious, especially if there’s even any inclination that we may be more prone to this illness.

The gateway drug hypotheses cannot account for all cases of addiction or substance use disorder present in the world today. The bottom line is that many individuals use a recreational drug or even have a full-blown experimentation phase of drug use but do not develop an addiction. Then there are individuals who may have smoked a small amount of marijuana in college. Still, it wasn’t until a very dark period in their lives that they began turning to more potent and dangerous substances to cope with the pain. Often our biological makeup and environmental life factors have more of an effect on the potential for addiction than a gateway drug like marijuana. Regardless of whether it runs in your family or began with the use of a gateway drug, if you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, we encourage you to call the Lakehouse Recovery Center at (877) 762-3707 and seek help today.