Substance Use

What Are Gateway Drugs?

red wine and marijuana buds

Table of Contents

Get Help Now

check insurance
Check your insurance by using our Online Form
call us
Talk to someone now.
Call (855) 430-9439

What is a Gateway Drug?

Gateway drugs tend to be widely accessible, cheap, and/or not well controlled by the government. They’re called “gateway” drugs because they are often the first drugs people experiment with, which can lead them to trying harder substances. However gateway drugs can be addicting themselves, and cause significant harm even if they do not lead a person to escalate to other more powerful drugs. 

Do you or a loved one need help overcoming substance use? Let Zinnia Health help. Dial (855) 430-9439 to speak with our team and learn more about your options for recovery. 

Call us
Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us

Examples of Gateway Drugs

Gateway drugs tend to be milder, which is why they tend to be lower cost and more accessible. More severe drugs are highly controlled, as keeping things like fentanyl and heroin off the streets takes priority over marijuana, for instance. Some drugs are also legally accessible, including marijuana (in certain states), alcohol, and nicotine, which means there’s a greater supply of them.

In short, just because a substance is referred to as a “gateway drug,” that doesn’t mean it’s less harmful or risky to take. Rather, this concept is used to better explain the risks of drug use and addiction.

There are a number of substances that have been classified as gateway drugs due to their wide accessibility, especially among young people. To follow is an overview of the most common gateway drugs.

1. Nicotine

Nicotine can be found in cigarettes and some vape pens, and a single cigar can contain as much nicotine as a full pack of cigarettes. It’s widely known for contributing to lung and throat cancer, and it’s also addicting. About half of all smokers try to quit every year, but it’s extremely difficult due to the intense cravings and other withdrawal symptoms they face.

The National Institutes of Health states: “Scientists have long recognized that cigarettes and alcohol raise the risk for later use of illicit drugs like marijuana and cocaine. In a recent national survey, over 90% of adult cocaine users between the ages of 18 and 34 had smoked cigarettes before they began using cocaine.”

This research solidified nicotine’s status as a gateway drug and shows that those who use nicotine are more likely to eventually engage in other forms of substance abuse, particularly cocaine.

2. Alcohol

Many people who use alcohol do not realize that they have an alcohol use disorder. For instance, a person may go long periods of time without drinking, but when they do drink, they indulge in 4-6 beverages or more. This is clinically defined as binge drinking and is just one way the gateway effect can apply to alcohol.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, children between the ages of 12 and 17 who use alcohol are 50 times more likely to use cocaine. Additionally, adults who used to drink alcohol underage are 6 times more likely to use cocaine later in life. Alcohol use is also correlated with nicotine and marijuana use in this report.

Since many adults have alcohol in their home, it’s easy for young adults to get ahold of alcohol without a family member knowing. However, the younger a person is when they use alcohol, the greater the effect it can have on their mind and body. As such, keeping a close eye on adolescents and their use of addictive drugs is essential.

3. Nootropics

Nootropics like kratom are unregulated substances that are often passed around at universities. Touted as a means of improving focus or helping a person feel more social when they’re suffering from anxiety, these substances can be dangerous. Aside from having unpredictable side effects, they can increase a person’s risk of using other drugs.

Research published in the National Library of Medicine finds that “It has been demonstrated that healthy students (i.e., those without any diagnosed mental disorders) are increasingly using drugs such as methylphenidate, a mixture of dextroamphetamine/amphetamine, and modafinil, for the purpose of increasing their alertness, concentration or memory.”

At Zinnia Health, we believe every individual can recover from drug use as long as they have the right support behind them. If you’d like more information about our approach, call (855) 430-9439 to speak with our team.

4. Marijuana

Marijuana has long been proclaimed to be a “gateway drug,” especially since it used to be the most widely used illicit substance in the United States.

Marijuana use can still lead to marijuana addiction, and the National Institute of Health proclaims that there is correlation between cannabis, alcohol, and nicotine use, stating: 

“Adults who reported marijuana use were more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder within 3 years; people who used marijuana and already had an alcohol use disorder at the outset were at greater risk of their alcohol use disorder worsening. Marijuana use is also linked to other substance use disorders including nicotine addiction.”

While they confirm that marijuana use will not necessarily develop into the use of “harder” drugs like meth or cocaine, it can lead to a polysubstance disorder where a person is more likely to drink or smoke.

5. Prescription Drugs

Certain prescription medications can be misused both intentionally and accidentally. For instance, someone taking opioids for pain may realize that increasing their dose leads to a rush of positive sensations, often described as a euphoric high. From the first time someone misuses a drug, the dopamine rush can keep them coming back for more.

Since prescription drugs may also be available to a person, especially a child, through a friend or family member’s medicine cabinet, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs of potential drug use. Prescription medications would be among the strongest substances on this list, which makes them especially risky as a gateway drug.

Treatment Options for Addiction

If you’re worried that someone you love is experimenting with substance use, help is available. Addiction treatment focuses on treating the whole person, starting with their physical well-being all the way through to their mental health.

What matters is that you get them in touch with the right services before addiction progresses.

When exploring treatment options for drug addiction, consider:

  • Outpatient programs that can help a person who is experimenting with substances understand why they are tempted to use
  • Mental health programs to support co-occurring disorders, like anxiety or depression, that can increase the risk of substance use
  • Inpatient drug rehab, which is helpful if a person has become dependent on or addicted to the substance they’re using

Are you looking for a confidential treatment program that can help you overcome substance use? Zinnia Health can help. Call our team today at (855) 430-9439 to learn more about our treatment options.

Call us
Ready to get help?
(855) 430-9439
Why call us? Why call us