What is a Gateway Drug?

You have probably heard the term gateway drug. But, what is a gateway drug? It is a habit-forming drug that in itself may not be addictive but leads to using other addictive drugs.

This term has been around for decades. It is most commonly used to describe nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana. Although some people argue these are not gateway drugs, research shows the transition is clear.

How Can One Drug Easily Lead to Using Another One?

We are all motivated by pleasure. Whether it be sports, music, or nature, different things make different people happy. But, the way our brains process pleasure is the same for everyone.

When we feel pleasure, our brains release dopamine which makes us seek that pleasure again. When people do gateway drugs, it releases large amounts of dopamine. In addition, the drugs block the reabsorption of dopamine. As a result, the sense of pleasure is prolonged.

The euphoria from gateway drugs can be so powerful that your brain wants more. With continued use, the brain and body can become so dependent that the current drug isn’t working anymore.

As a result, people move on to more potent drugs. Hence the term gateway drug.

Why are “Softer Drugs” a Myth?

The term “soft drug” is an arbitrary term with no clear criteria. While “hard drugs” are typically heroin and meth, marijuana and alcohol are generally “soft drugs.”

But, these terms just raise more questions than answers. Are crack and meth “hard” when they are injected but “soft” when they are smoked? Is cannabis oil a “hard drug” while cannabis flower is a “soft” drug?

Furthermore, what about prescription medication? You don’t hear these terms used even though some medications are similar to heroin. So, for the most part, the terms “soft drug” and “hard drug” are just for dramatic effects.

Gateway Drug Examples

When talking about gateway drug examples, people’s first thought is typically marijuana. While the initial effects of marijuana are mild, it can still be harmful. For some, the use of marijuana leads to the misuse of more dangerous drugs. Besides marijuana, other gateway drugs include tobacco and alcohol.

gateway drug


While marijuana is the most commonly known gateway drug, it is also the most disputed. Today more than ever, the medical benefits of marijuana are believed to outway the harm. However, studies do prove the theory.

For example, the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders found people who use marijuana are more likely to develop alcohol use disorder (AUD) within three years. Furthermore, those with an AUD who consume marijuana typically have a worsen alcohol use disorder.

While studies show, marijuana is a gateway drug, most people who use marijuana do not go on to use “harder drugs.”


Research shows smoking cigarettes in your late teens and early 20’s changes the brain putting them at risk for experimenting with other drugs. Another study in 2020 found university students who smoke have higher levels of depression. Mental disorders such as depression are known causes of substance misuse.

Over recent years, researchers have recognized that alcohol and cigarettes increase the risk for later use of illicit drugs. Over 90% of cocaine users between the ages of 18 and 24 had smoked cigarettes at some point before using cocaine. Researchers are led to believe that nicotine exposure may be the reason smokers have an increased vulnerability to cocaine. However, there is no absolutely identified biological mechanism.


Alcohol like tobacco is viewed by many as a gateway drug. So, just how many people misuse alcohol? According to SAMHSA, in 2019, 20.4 million people struggled with substance use disorder (SUD). Of those people, 14.5 million struggle with AUD.

Alcohol is often a gateway drug because it lowers inhibitions and causes risky behaviors. For example, a person scared to try an illicit drug or take a friend’s prescription may do so while drunk.

Another reason is a person may tire of the “buzz” or getting sick from alcohol. As a result, they start looking for a new high. This is the true meaning of a gateway drug.

Are Prescription Drugs Also Gateway Drugs?

The ’80s were when Nancy Regan and the D.A.R.E. program starting pushing alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana as gateway drugs. Kids all over the country were told these three drugs would lead them down a path of despair. But, little did they know, the ’90s would bring opioid painkillers.

Opioids hit the market and with little knowledge of the risk of misuse. Doctors prescribed them to almost every individual with mild to severe pain. And when taken as prescribed, they are effective painkillers.

But, users were becoming dependent on their medication. As a result, people started misusing their medication. By the 2000s, there was a full-blown opioid epidemic.

Some doctors were still writing endless prescriptions, but it can be expensive to continue buying medications. As a result, people started buying heroin and prescription opioids off the streets.

Although buying these illicit drugs is cheaper, heroin is three times stronger than morphine and twice as strong as oxycodone.

Controversy Surrounding Gateway Drugs

According to the New York Times, D.A.R.E. officials admit most people who smoke marijuana do not go on to use harder drugs. Some critics even believe marijuana may reduce the chance of using other drugs.

How Can Using Drugs With Low Risk of Overdose Lead to Using Drugs with High Overdose Risk?

Most of us know that drugs like cocaine, heroin, and meth can lead to life-threatening overdoses. However, other drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are viewed as harmless and acceptable.  But are gateway drugs really harmless?

Yes, on their own, these acceptable substances are harmless to most people. But, combining gateway drugs and specific factors can be risky. Above all, it can lead to using more addictive drugs and a life-threatening overdose.

Gateway Drugs and the Risk Factors For Substance Use Disorder

Why can some people use marijuana or drink alcohol and never have a substance use disorder, and some people can not? A variety of factors play a role in the development of addiction.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the following are risk factors that may lead to misusing drugs or alcohol.

  • Genetics
  • Family history of substance use disorder
  • Unhealthy home environment
  • Stress at work or school
  • Childhood trauma
  • Mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of drug education
  • Access to drugs or alcohol

If you have any of these risk factors, you should be careful about using any gateway drugs.

Why Does Using Drugs and Alcohol at a Young Age Lead To Using More Powerful Drugs?

Our brains continue growing until our mid-20’s, especially the prefrontal cortex. It is the last to finish developing and is responsible for decision-making. When teens use drugs or alcohol, it interferes with important brain growth.

Gateway drugs also affect the ability to make decisions. As a result, teens engage in risky behaviors such as driving under the influence, unsafe sex, and using more potent drugs. Unfortunately, these decisions can cause lasting damage.

The earlier teens use drugs or alcohol, the higher their chance of developing a substance use disorder later in life. Furthermore, using gateway drugs as a teen can lead to developing adult health issues such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and sleep disorders.

Is Vaping a New Gateway Drug?

E-cigarettes are meant to be a safer smoking alternative. But, people who never smoked cigarettes now vape, including a high number of teens. Whether the vape contains nicotine or marijuana, they affect brain development and lead to using other drugs.

A lot is still unknown about vaping, and studies are ongoing. But, early evidence suggests vaping is a gateway drug, and teens go on to use other nicotine products and marijuana. Research in the New England Journal of Medicine states vaping increases the risk of addiction to cocaine and other drugs.

Many states are raising the tobacco buying age to 21 in an effort to curb teen vaping. By doing so, they also hope to minimize future drug misuse.

Treating Gateway Drug Use

Treatment options typically depend on the individual and their gateway drug of choice. Many treatment programs combine psychotherapy, behavioral and group therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and peer support.

Medication-assisted treatment is especially helpful for those struggling with opioid use disorder. Medications such as naltrexone and methadone can ease cravings, stop withdrawal symptoms, and prevent relapse.

Find Help at Sana Lake Behavioral Wellness Center

Are you or someone you love struggling with drug or alcohol misuse? You are not alone. At Sana Lake BWC, we understand the importance of support from others who have walked in your shoes. Our peer support specialists and professional therapists are here to support you along your journey. We believe that no one should battle addiction alone. Please reach out if you have any questions or would like more information on recovery.

Call us today and find out how we can help you.