A gateway drug is a substance that, when used, is believed to lead to the use of a stronger drug. For instance, marijuana has historically been considered a gateway drug to the use of more powerful drugs, such as cocaine, LSD, or pills.
The Earlier the Use, The Greater Chance of Addiction
Some sources debate if gateway drugs truly lead to harder drug use, while other research confirms that the use of one drug often leads to other, stronger drugs. One thing that researchers can agree on is that use of alcohol and cigarettes in adolescence does lead to an increased chance of illegal drug use.
Not every young person engages in substance use, but those who do experiment often do so in adolescence (ages 13-18). The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that almost 70 percent of high school seniors have tried alcohol at some point, 50% of high school students will have tried an illegal drug, 40% will have smoked a cigarette, and a growing number of young people have misused prescription drugs at some point.
These statistics are quite alarming. Adolescence is a time of unique brain development. While a teenager’s brain reward system and abilities to learn new information are fully developed, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the logic center of the brain, is not fully formed until age 25. While young adults often engage in adventurous activities, try new things, and take greater risks, experimenting with substance use at a young age can lead to life-long addiction.
When a person tries drugs or alcohol at an early age, the brain becomes quickly accustomed to the input of those substances. Gateway drugs, such as cigarettes or alcohol, may wire the brain to seek rewards more quickly. These patterns can become ingrained as the brain develops, and they may be harder to break over time.
How Does Substance Use Progress to Addiction?
Substance use temporarily increases dopamine in the brain among people of all ages. This increase may lead to ongoing cravings for more drugs or alcohol. The use of outside drugs eventually compromises the body’s ability to naturally produce pleasure-related chemicals like dopamine. Over time, the individual will seek more substances to fill those gaps in dopamine production. Rehab treatment allows enough time for the brain to rebuild and rewire itself back to normal.
A study in the American Journal of Public Health found that substance use often progresses through a number of drugs. They found that early-stage substance use often involves cigarettes or alcohol, while later use often includes marijuana, then prescription stimulants or cocaine. Sadly, this particular path of addiction was found to end in either crack cocaine use or heroin use. Either way, the path progressed to more serious drugs with time. The pattern began with use of some type of gateway drug.
Do Gateway Drugs Always Lead to Further Substance Use?
The journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence published an article that took a close look at a variety of people from 17 countries. By looking closely at date from the World Health Organization World Mental Health surveys, researchers were able to gain information from a wide variety of people using a standardized test approach. The study included both self-reported substance use as well as information from professionals in the medical field across the world.
Close examination of the initiation and order of substance use focused on tobacco use, alcohol consumption, cannabis use, and other illicit drug consumption among study participants. This wide-ranging study did find that there is a type of “gateway” pattern in substance use among all people. While it is possible to abuse a gateway drug and not try other substances later on, gateway drugs do seem to open the door to a greater possibility of substance addiction later on.
Not Every Drug Addiction Begins with a Gateway Drug
Ultimately, the journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence reports that not every addiction follows a set path. Yes, some people do flow down a path of greater drug use after consuming a gateway drug for a period of time, but not all addictions begin in the same way.
Each addiction is unique. And each person who struggles with addiction may use different substances or different combinations of substances in their own way. It is a very good idea, indeed, to prevent the use of gateway drugs. However, it is not fully possible to prevent substance addiction by eliminating gateway drugs alone.
Addiction and substance use impact different people in different ways. It is possible that the process of having to access potential gateway drugs through illegal means may open the door to experimentation with more serious gateway drugs. In other instances, the use of gateway drugs may prompt substance users to want to try more and stronger drugs. And in even other cases, some drug addictions begin with stronger drugs on day one.
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