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Gateway Drugs: According to Science

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“Gateway drugs” is a trigger term we’ve all heard growing up. The societal standard is to consider marijuana the primary gateway drug. However, science shows us that many other substances – or drugs – the youth use can lead to addiction.

This article will delve into the science behind gateway drugs in more depth.

What are Gateway Drugs?

A gateway drug is a habit-forming drug (such as alcohol or Marijuana) whose use can lead to dependence on other, more addictive drugs (such as cocaine or heroin). Studies suggest that the theory of the transition from consuming “softer” drugs to using more potent substances is real. The milder substances, such as nicotine or alcohol, open the door to harder drugs and long-term drug addiction.

Gateway drugs attack the central nervous system and prepare the brain for a more tolerant response to other dangerous substances, a process known as cross-sensitization. Boosted brain activity could make users more likely to seek more problematic substances that cause more dramatic dopamine releases. Gateway drugs affect a person’s risk of trying more dangerous substances. 

In 2016, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that teenagers who consume gateway drugs are 266 times more likely to develop substance use disorders and cocaine addiction than those who do not.

Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?

While technically there are many other drugs that lead to addiction and drug use prior to people ever trying marijuana, for many people marijuana is the first illicit drug they use (next to underage drinking.)

Marijuana (also called weed, pot, dope, or cannabis) is the dried flowers and leaves of the cannabis plant. It contains mind-altering compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, as well as other active compounds.

Marijuana can be rolled up and smoked like a cigarette (a joint) or a cigar (a blunt). Vaping or smoking or “dabbing” highly potent oils, concentrates, and extracts from the marijuana plant are also rising in popularity. 

Some research suggests that the consumption of Marijuana is likely to precede the use of other licit and illicit substances and the development of addiction to other harmful substances. A recent study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that about 45 percent of regular marijuana smokers used other illegal drugs later in life.

A study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that individuals who used Marijuana by age 17 were two to five times more likely to have a substance abuse problem when they grow up than those who did not. Children who take Marijuana are 85 times more likely to use cocaine than people who don’t use Marijuana. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Marijuana users are three times more likely than nonusers to abuse heroin and fall into the trap of alcohol addiction.

Gateway Drugs Examples

The most common gateway drugs are drugs that aren’t even illegal, they boost dopamine levels, increase pleasure, and are addictive in nature. In recent years, illicit opioids, prescription drugs, and other common substances have made their way to the gateway drugs list.


Multiple studies suggest that alcohol is a gateway drug that impairs brain function and motor skills. In 2014, about 88 percent of adults reported drinking alcohol at some point in their lives, and about 25 percent reported binge drinking in the past month. Alcohol use disorder is rampant in the US because of its easy availability.


Caffeine falls under the radar of what people consider to be a “gateway drug” because it’s not illegal or in the spotlight. Many parents actually give their kids caffeine at a young age, not even realizing they’re giving them drugs. It changes their state of mind, has physiological effects, is addicting, and socially acceptable. Caffeine is technically the ultimate gateway drug, considering its addictive nature and wide use across all ages. 


Marijuana is commonly recognized as a gateway drug that changes a person’s attention, motivation, memory, and ability to learn. In 2014, more than 22 million people reported using Marijuana in the past month, per NIDA, making it the most abused illicit drug in the United States.


Researchers have long recognized tobacco products (nicotine) products as gateway drugs. In 2011, scientists fed rats nicotine-laced water for seven consecutive days. The results, published in Science Translation Medicine, showed that the rats had an increased response to cocaine afterward. Many teens start to smoke cigarettes out of curiosity or boredom and become addicted to the nicotine rush.

Prescription Drugs

Studies link prescription drugs to heroin use and prescription drug abuse has exploded in popularity in recent years. About 52 million Americans (ages 12 and older) have used prescription drugs non-medically in their lives, per National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Opioids are the most abused prescription drugs.

Many other substances, legal or illicit, can increase dopamine levels and potentially act as gateway drugs, such as inhalants, energy drinks, steroids, etc.

infographic of gateway drugs

Effects of Gateway Drugs on your Body

Here’s what happens to your body when gateway drugs enter your bloodstream:

  1. Impaired judgment
  2. Memory problems
  3. Increased anxiety/depression
  4. Burning mouth
  5. Lung irritation
  6. Weakened immune system
  7. Withdrawal symptoms
  8. Slow reaction time
  9. Bloodshot eyes
  10. Increased heartbeat
  11. Mental health issues

If you or a loved one is battling with the hazards of gateway drugs, you can contact Pacific Sands Recovery and have a care coordinator guide you through the process.  We understand what it’s like to be in your position, and we want to help. Our team of trained medical professionals will help you with substance abuse treatment programs at every stage of recovery. Our customized approach offers tailored treatment plans that consider your unique needs by combining various therapies and techniques.


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