What are gateway drugs? Many addicts can testify of one particular “entry-level” drug or addictive substance that started them down the road to ruin. But that one particular drug isn’t the same for every addict. For some it is smoking tobacco, for others, it is alcohol or pot. It turns out that it’s not so easy to understand what makes a drug a gateway drug.
In this article, we’ll look at the confusion regarding entry-level drugs (aka gateway drugs) and the harm they can cause. If you worry that one of your loved ones may be starting down the road to addiction, please contact us at 385-327-7418. We can answer your questions and refer you to rehabilitation specialists who can help.
Read on to discover more about gateway drugs. Whether you or a loved one are suffering from active addiction or just starting on a dangerous path, we can find you the help you need.
A Tricky Definition
It’s a common story among people suffering from addiction: there was one specific incident. However, one particular drug that got them started on the wrong track. Perhaps it was their first drink when they were a teen. Or maybe the first cigarette that they smoked with friends. Beer, cigarettes, and pot are usually cited as examples of gateway drugs or entry-level drugs.
These terms, which are interchangeable, probably originated during the “war on drugs” in the U.S. in the early 1980s. They refer to substances that introduce impressionable people to the world of substance abuse. These drugs are traditionally considered to be not as “bad” as other drugs. Because they don’t cause as much immediate harm to a person. While prolonged smoking or drinking can create problems, the theory is that “one little drink” is fairly harmless.
What makes a drug a gateway drug? The answer is complicated because addiction is complicated. Not everyone who smoked weed as a teenager continued on to other drugs. Nor did everyone who drank or smoked as a teenager end up as an alcoholic or chain-smoker. Each person is different, and each person can react to chemicals in different ways.
While there is much empirical research indicating that using an entry-level drug can lead to more drug abuse. However, there’s no guarantee that it will for every person. So the term “gateway drug” really has two different meanings. In one case, it is a substance that both precedes (comes before) and causes drug addiction. In the other case, it is a substance that precedes drug addiction but does not necessarily cause it. We can see that taking an entry-level drug doesn’t mean the person will continue down the path to drug addiction. It shows us only that the potential exists.
Quest for Evidence
Both meanings of the term “entry-level drug” help us understand the problems we face in dealing with these substances. A post on IReasearchNet delves further into the issue. One definition of “entry-level drug” implies that preventing the use of drugs that come earlier in a sequence of drug abuse would also prevent the use of drugs that come later in that sequence. But the other definition implies that preventing individuals from using gateway drugs will not necessarily prevent them from using other drugs at all.
There is a moderate correlation between marijuana use by teens and later drug abuse. But “this association fades from statistical significance with adjustments for stress and life-course variables. Likewise, our findings show that any causal influence of teen marijuana use on other illicit substance use is contingent upon employment status and is short-term.” In other words, there doesn’t seem to be a strong link between teen marijuana use and later drug abuse. The site makes it plain at one point. “There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs.”
Alcohol could be a gateway drug for youths. A study “indicated that alcohol represented the ‘gateway’ drug, leading to the use of tobacco, marijuana, and other illicit substances. Moreover, students who used alcohol exhibited a significantly greater likelihood of using both licit and illicit drugs.” Alcohol abuse should receive primary attention in school-based substance abuse prevention programs, “as the use of other substances could be impacted by delaying or preventing alcohol use.”
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Studies and Statistics
The National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders found that people who used marijuana at the start of the study were more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder within three years. It also found that “people who used marijuana and already had an alcohol use disorder at the outset were at greater risk of their alcohol use disorder worsening.”
Meanwhile, a study of adolescent rodents revealed that early exposure to cannabinoids decreases the reactivity of brain dopamine reward centers later in adulthood. This means that the adult rodents would have had a stronger biological desire to use cannabinoids or other chemicals to increase their dopamine levels.
Both studies would seem to indicate that marijuana use leads to further drug use later on. But DrugAbuse.gov is quick to note that statistically, the people who use marijuana are not necessarily more likely to use stronger substances in the future.
Other factors, notably society and availability, also play a role in whether a person continues to use marijuana or not. “An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances. [Drugs] such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol.” they write, “and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increase their chances of trying other drugs. Further research is needed to explore this question.”
The Progression to Harder Drugs
What Leads to Heroin Use?
When it comes to opioid abuse, one study seems to indicate an “entry-level drug” effect going on. The study of injection drug users from 2008 and 2009 found that “86 percent had used opioid pain relievers nonmedically prior to using heroin, and their initiation into nonmedical use was characterized by three main sources of opioids: family, friends, or personal prescriptions.”
This is significant because it demonstrates a shift in heroin use. For those entering treatment for heroin addiction in the 1960s, more than 80 percent started with heroin. Based on this, it would seem that modern heroin addicts are using prescription drugs as entry-level drugs. For those who began abusing opioids in the 2000s, 75 percent reported that their first opioid was a prescription drug.
Nicotine and Cocaine Linked?
Another report seems to show that nicotine makes the brain more susceptible to cocaine addiction. If true, this would indicate that lowering the smoking rates in young people would also lower the rate of cocaine abuse. Earlier research had shown that levels of a gene called FosB in the brain’s striatum were linked to cocaine addiction. In the 2011 study, investigators found that 7 days of administering nicotine to mice caused a 61% increase in FosB expression. “When given a dose of cocaine, these mice had an additional 74% increase in FosB expression compared to mice treated with cocaine alone.”
The study indicated that nicotine inhibits the action of certain molecules in the brain. By modifying those molecules, the investigators found that they could either enhance or inhibit the effects of cocaine. Dr. Eric Kandel at Columbia University said that the study will allow scientists to further study the “molecular mechanisms by which alcohol and marijuana might act as gateway drugs. In particular, we would be interested in knowing if there is a single, common mechanism for all gateway drugs or if each drug utilizes a distinct mechanism.”
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No Proof of Causation
Studies like these would seem to show examples of gateway drugs leading to harder drug use, thus proving that the phenomenon is just as real as the Reagans would have liked us to believe in the 80s. But there are other factors that need to be considered.
As IResearchNet has noted, the same studies that showed a general correlation between the use of gateway drugs and subsequent use of harder drugs have also failed to explain a large number of exceptions to this rule. In other words, there doesn’t seem to be an overall consistent link between abuse of a particular substance and future addictions.
The site points out that when it comes to which substances someone abuses first, other factors are at play. Youths with low parental supervision are likely to consume marijuana before alcohol and/or tobacco. “Consumption of marijuana prior to use of licit drugs thus appears to be related to contextual factors rather than to any unique characteristics of the individual.”
Another problem we can see, then, is that there’s no specific hierarchy of substance abuse. A person who begins by smoking marijuana could end up never becoming an addict, or using less potent drugs instead of stronger ones. That doesn’t make the addiction less of a problem, but it does cast doubt on the idea that marijuana use leads to the abuse of stronger drugs.
These observations have led many to argue that marijuana and similar drugs should be legalized on a nationwide level. Those arguments unfortunately tend to ignore the basic problems with substance abuse in the first place. But we can at least see why those who support legalizing marijuana make the arguments they do.
The issue we should consider now is how relevant the term “gateway drug” or “entry-level drug” is when evaluating the dangers of addiction. It’s already clear enough that addiction itself is destructive, regardless of how it comes about.
What is a gateway drug? The fact is that any kind of substance can be a “gateway” to addiction. Any parent whose child is smoking, abusing alcohol, or abusing pot has a legitimate right to be concerned about their child’s future health. And if you are abusing drugs or alcohol, you have a right to be concerned about your future.
Gateway drugs are dangerous. Whether you become addicted or not, the substances themselves could cause terrible harm to your health. For many people, these “innocent” substances are where addictions are born and continue to grow.
If you are telling yourself that your addiction isn’t so bad because there are worse drugs, you aren’t being honest with yourself about how dangerous addiction can be. It takes control of your life and will ultimately ruin it.
Please contact us today at 385-327-7418 to learn about rehab facilities in your area. The people who work there are professionals who want to help get your life, or that of a loved one, back on track. Reach out for help now, before one addiction leads to another.
Written by Steve Witucki
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