What Are Gateway Drugs?

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Like many things in life, addiction is often times a slow fade. People simply don’t start out planning to be a black tar heroin addict who can’t function in life. Most of the time, the use of less “hard drugs” gives way to more dangerous and addictive drugs. These lesser drugs commonly called gateway drugs. Gateway drugs include drugs such as Nicotine, marijuana, alcohol and prescription drugs among others. The use of these drugs can lead to the use of harder drugs, like heroin. And the reason is multi-fold. Research shows that starting off experimenting with mild drugs can lead to major drug problems. Let’s talk about what gateway drugs are, how and why they can lead to harder drugs, and offer some examples of common gateway drugs.

What is a Gateway Drug?

Gateway drugs are milder substances that often lead to harder drugs. These milder drugs are usually easy-to-get substances that introduce individuals to the feeling of being high or intoxicated. This is when the “gateway” part of gateway drugs comes into play. Drugs, such as marijuana and alcohol, boost your dopamine levels and produce feelings of pleasure. Eventually, the user may begin to build a tolerance to the drug and look for other substances that offer a more substantial high. This is when someone may begin to experiment with harder drugs, such as cocaine, prescription pills, and more. 

It is most common for gateway drugs to be used in adolescence. The brain is not fully developed until a person is in their mid-twenties and using any drugs or alcohol before the age of 25 can disturb the brain’s development. Moreover, adolescence is also a time in which there are heightened dopamine levels in the brain. This often results in individuals looking for substances that can increase these dopamine levels and provide a pleasurable experience. Furthermore, young people are much more likely to engage in risky behavior as the decision-making part of their brains is not fully developed. This means that adolescence is a time in which individuals are more likely to experiment with gateway drugs, which can result in a disruption in brain development in the long run. Overall, using gateway drugs as a young person significantly increases your chances of using harder drugs later in life.

Considering this, it is important to know what common gateway drugs are to prevent future use of illicit drugs.

What are the Most Common Gateway Drugs?


Tobacco shares a number of close associations with the use and abuse of other drugs. Research has recognized nicotine as a gateway drug for a long time. Due to smoking a cigarette or vape being socially acceptable, many people do not view it as a gateway drug. A study published in Science Translational Medicine, however, discovered that after feeding rats nicotine-laced water for seven days, that they had an increased response to cocaine. Moreover, e-cigarettes that were originally designed to help individuals quit smoking have actually made the problem worse. With the introduction of vapes, research shows an increase in smoking amongst younger generations. This also means that these younger generations are becoming more susceptible to eventually using harder drugs. Some of the main drugs linked to nicotine use are cocaine, heroin, and marijuana.


Alcohol, a central nervous system depressant, is a significant gateway drug. Alcohol is by far the most prevalent drug. The large and ongoing Monitoring the Future Project surveys 50,000 students in 8th, 10th, and 12th grade each year to compile their data. Findings suggest that:

  • About 54 percent of 12th graders who reported they used alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana reported using alcohol first, compared to 32 percent reporting tobacco use first, and 14 percent reporting marijuana use first.
  • Students reporting alcohol use in the 6th grade had greater rates of lifetime illicit substance use than students who reported first using alcohol in the 9th grade or beyond.
  • Students reporting alcohol use in the 6th grade had significantly more frequent occurrences of illicit substance abuse than students who reported first using alcohol in 9th grade or later.

These findings continue into college age kids. A study conducted at the University of Florida found that students who drank alcohol were 16 times more likely to use illicit drugs, particularly cocaine and amphetamines. Multiple other studies also show that drinking at a young age impacts drug use later in life. Some common drugs associated with alcohol use are cocaine, heroin, opioids, and marijuana.


Marijuana has increasingly become a common drug used by individuals over the past decade. Most who use it have no intention of using harder drugs. The one time stigma associated with marijuana use has all be evaporated. Almost every state has had some form of attempt to legalize this drug which has led to an increase in production and the enhancing of the potency. Because of the focus on legalization, marijuana is not seen as an addictive drug, and many believe it can be used safely. This, however, is not true. Not only is it possible to become dependent on marijuana, but marijuana commonly leads to the use of harder drugs. 

A study found that almost 45 percent of regular marijuana users used another illicit drug later in life. One of the common drugs used by marijuana users is heroin. Studies show that the majority of heroin users started off by using marijuana or alcohol. Some other drugs linked to marijuana use are cocaine and ecstasy. Further, evidence has been shown that daily use of this psychoactive drug leads to psychosis.

Prescription Drugs

It is debated whether or not prescription drugs are gateway drugs since they can be on the spectrum of harmless to extremely addictive. However, it is widely acknowledged that they have recently exploded in popularity. Approximately 52 million Americans 12 years and older have used prescription drugs non-medically – opioids being the most common.

Prescription drug use is commonly linked to heroin use. Heroin, a synthesized opioid that can include other prescription drugs (such as fentanyl), achieves a more intense high than taking solely prescription drugs. Opioid users are 40 times more likely to abuse heroin than non-users. This is due to the similar effects prescriptions drugs have to heroin. Along with heroin, prescription drug use commonly leads to cocaine use.

Why Are Gateway Drugs A Problem?

Now that we know what gateway drugs are and you have some idea of the most common ones, let’s discuss, briefly, why they are a problem. There are two common components to why gateway drugs lead to illicit drugs. One is physical/psychological and the other is social. We have provided a number of studies that show that children who engage in gateway drugs create pathways in their brain that cause them to physically desire other, harder drugs. The part we haven’t really discussed yet is the social aspect. Most engage gateway drugs in a social setting. For example, at a party where there is alcohol present. Or smoking cigarettes (both tobacco and marijuana) with friends. These seemingly harmless “rights of passage” can be key indicators of later behavior in life. Also, as one physically moves on to harder drugs, the social settings can, and most often do, change. The same group of friends you were smoking cigarettes with may or may not be the new friends you decide to try prescription pills or alcohol with. And the social circle you inhabit in which you intravenously inject heroin will most certainly not be the group you used to smoke marijuana with. While some friends may “come along for the ride,” for those who move on to substance use disorder, the behaviors of the social circles will change with the drugs. This is a fact. This is why community is so important for those who wish to make a change in addiction. You change your social circle and you change your behavior.

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