What Are Gateway Drugs?

24 Mar 2015

The question “What are gateway drugs?” comes up often in research and discussion about how people start on the road to drug abuse and addiction. A significant body of thought considers that using some drugs, even experimentally, increases the possibility of a person using stronger substances.

Medical Marijuana Buds

The drugs regarded as gateway drugs are nicotine, alcohol and marijuana, because they are relatively cheap, easy to obtain and have an image of being more socially acceptable. Two of them are legal everywhere and in some places all three are. These gateway drugs have a deceptive “trick”: they are widely accepted and thus seem almost harmless, even though the damage they cause to the mind and body is well documented. People use them all the time and consider them less dangerous than harder drugs. And young people usually absorb and perpetuate the behavior models they grow up with.

Fortunately, good information is available about what gateway drugs are, as is help and treatment for those who pass through the gateway to the other side.

Thinking That Stopping is Easy

Nobody uses a drug with the intention of becoming an addict. Every new user is curious and thinks he/she can handle it and stop any time.

The journey back through the drug gateway is harder than entering it because it is so easy for one thing to lead to another. The majority of cocaine users, for example, started by regularly using a gateway drug. Granted, not everyone who uses alcohol or marijuana will progress to harder drugs, but many do. The possibility is always there and the likelihood increases as a person develops tolerance for, or dependence on, a gateway drug.

Many people regard gateway drugs as harmless. They think they have control over them and can stop using them anytime. Marijuana has a reputation as a “soft” drug that is not addictive (note: it is) because it is “natural”, a “herb” and is touted to have medicinal properties. But when using gateway drugs becomes part of normal life, a user can lose track of how much he/she is consuming each day. That person can develop tolerance, even dependence, and lose rational judgment about drug use.

The Gateway of Tolerance and Dependence

a young man smoking a cigaretteThe drug gateway really opens us when someone uses substances frequently and develops a high tolerance for them. The person uses more of a drug in order to experience the original effect, like the alcoholic who must consume so much more to get drunk than ever before. Tolerance is not the same as addiction, but the next step is dependence, where the person “needs” the drug regularly in a bid to feel “normal”. For example, a cigarette smoker who feels the need to smoke to alleviate the feelings of nicotine depletion (headache, stress, irritability, etc). Suddenly, the use of the gateway drug has gone beyond normal to be regarded as “beneficial”. This is dependence. Addiction can follow, as can using more powerful drugs to mask problems.

With alcohol, a regular pattern is that it starts with social drinking, then alcohol becomes associated with having a good time, then it becomes essential to social gatherings, and eventually becomes a routine part of the day where four or five drinks or more become the means for relieving stress and unwinding. Alcohol becomes a refuge, judgment becomes impaired, and the temptation to try other drugs is elevated.

Keeping it in Perspective

Happy therapist talking with a rehab group at therapy sessionThe good news is that using a gateway drug does not guarantee someone will become an addict. This can be some comfort for concerned loved ones. The most important things to do are:

  • become educated about gateway drugs and their risks
  • work together and support each other to live a life as free of them as possible
  • be available to each other to talk about problems and stresses
  • discuss drugs and the importance of clean living with respected experts..
  • know that rehab and detox help is available to bring back those who appear to be stuck on the other side of the drug gateway.

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