Gateway Drugs and Their Impact on Illicit Drug Abuse

Gateway Drugs and Their Impact on Illicit Drug Abuse

In the 1980s, the term “gateway drug” became a household phrase, used in anti-drug campaigns and classroom education.  However, the idea that using “soft” drugs increased the likelihood of using illicit drugs began much earlier with concepts such as the stepping-stone theory, escalation hypothesis, and more.

Education on these subjects during the mid-twentieth century, especially in the public education system, aimed to instill fear in teenagers with dramatic videos that portrayed young adults trying marijuana and then immediately escalating to heroin in a possessed, crazed state. Due to this extreme depiction, viewers often did not take the gateway drug theory seriously.

However, over the years, an abundance of research has been accumulated to connect the use of gateway drugs with the increased likeliness of abusing harder, more harmful drugs. With this evidence, it is important to be informed about the severity of gateway drugs.

What Drugs Are Considered ‘Gateway Drugs’?

Depending on the study, there are a variety of substances that are considered gateway drugs. According to D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), the most widely accepted gateway drugs are alcohol, nicotine/ tobacco, and marijuana. Each of these substances possess their own negative health effects including addiction and damage to the body.

However, when taking a look at these substances from a gateway drug perspective, their negative effects span further than the immediate health implications. The reason for this is that it is extremely rare for someone to experiment with cocaine, ecstasy, heroin, prescription pills, or methamphetamine without having dabbled in gateway drugs first.

Although it is false that everyone who tries marijuana will try a harder drug (in fact, most marijuana users quit as they enter adulthood), it is true that the vast majority of illicit drug users first became comfortable using gateway drugs. By normalizing soft drug use, individuals are more likely to be open to experimenting with more dangerous substances.

In addition to the normalization of drug use, one reason that users of gateway drugs have an increased chance of partaking in the consumption of harsher, more harmful drugs is a concept called cross-sensitization. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that marijuana, alcohol, and nicotine have the ability to, “prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs.”

A cross-sensitization study conducted on rats revealed that animals exposed to THC experienced a more heightened behavioral response to other illicit drugs.

Alcohol as a Gateway Drug

Alcohol is one of the most common gateway drugs. According to a study conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 88% of adults drink alcohol during their lifetime. Alcohol has been linked to further drug use, particularly when abuse starts at a young age. When exposed to alcohol, underage drinkers are more likely to try illicit drugs within two hours of consumption, as opposed to those at the legal drinking age.

Underage drinkers are also more likely to try marijuana, another gateway drug that is linked to more dangerous substances. The University of Florida conducted a study that revealed that students who consumed alcohol were 16 times more likely to try harder/illegal drugs, as opposed to non-drinkers. Illicit drug abuse linked to alcohol use includes cocaine, prescription pills, and heroin.

Nicotine & Tobacco as Gateway Drugs

Nicotine and tobacco are other common substances that open the door to risk factors and illicit drug abuse. With e-cigarettes and “vaping” gaining popularity among youth, the abuse of nicotine and tobacco are important gateway drugs to be aware of.

In a study conducted with rats, animals that were exposed to nicotine for seven days had an increased response to cocaine in comparison to animals who had not been exposed to nicotine. Additionally, nicotine has been proven to increase the levels of FosB in the brain, a gene that has been linked to cocaine and drug addiction.

Similar to alcohol, those who use nicotine at a young age are at higher risk for illicit drug use compared to those who do not. A study conducted by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia revealed that individuals who develop a cigarette smoking habit while they are underage are 19 times more likely to try cocaine and 13 times more likely to try heroin. These statistics reveal that nicotine and tobacco use should not be taken lightly, especially with those who are underage.

Marijuana as a Gateway Drug

Marijuana is the most commonly used drug, and popularity is on the rise with the legalization of recreational usage in states across the country. With an increasingly relaxed view of marijuana, it is crucial to be aware of potential repercussions.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that those who use marijuana are three times more likely to try heroin. Additionally, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration found that teens who regularly use marijuana are 30 times more likely to try crack cocaine, 20 times more likely to use ecstasy, 15 times more likely to use prescription pills, and 14 times more likely to abuse other over the counter substances.

Gateway drugs are not something to be taken lightly, especially with underage individuals and young adults. To combat this issue, teens should be educated on gateway drugs in a safe, comfortable environment. The scare tactics employed in the past make gateway drugs come off as a joke, so it’s important to take an honest, educational approach. Gateway drugs are not the only factor that impacts drug abuse, but studies have found direct correlations to illicit drugs, making it crucial that gateway drugs are not looked at lightly.

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