Definition of Gateway Drugs
By definition, gateway drugs are substances that open the door to harsher or more dangerous drugs. When we talk about gateway drugs, we are often referencing substances that commonly lead users to transition to drugs like cocaine or heroin.
What Are Considered Gateway Drugs?
One common example of a group of gateway drugs is prescription opioids. Recent data tells us that nearly 80 percent of heroin users reported using prescription opioids prior to heroin. This means that only 20 percent of heroin users started with heroin or another substance first.
Prescription opioids are clear and common gateway drugs. And this applies to both medical and non-medical use of opioids. Many individuals begin taking prescription opioids for a genuine medical need after an accident, injury, or surgery.
But they may find themselves hooked in their effects quickly. This is one reason why opioid prescriptions are generally short-term. Opioids are highly addictive. Unfortunately, a prescription is not enough to guarantee our health and safety.
We must be vigilant about the ways that we use such potent medications. Sticking to the methods, dosages, timelines, and other instructions outlined in our prescriptions can help us mitigate their risks.
This is one of the most extreme examples of a gateway drug. There are three others that are also common and often less severe.
Does Everyone Graduate from Gateway Drugs?
The term “gateway drugs,” is not a medical one. There is no strict, one-size-fits-all definition or list for this social phrase. It is used as a reference or a general guide rather than a hard-and-fast rule. Everyone is different. No two people experience addiction the same way.
We use the term gateway drugs to inform and analyze. It’s important to note that not everyone who uses a gateway drug will graduate to harder substances or suffer long-term consequences. But since some do, it’s important to talk about the potential.
Is Alcohol a Gateway Drug? Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?
We’ve already talked about prescription opioids leading to heroin use and mentioned that three other substances that are commonly considered gateway drugs. These additional three are nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana.
Alcohol as a Gateway Drug
Alcohol is readily available and present in many social situations. Because it is so normalized, we often forget how dangerous it can be. This central nervous system depressant can be just as addictive as illicit drugs.
When misused, it impairs important brain functions and reduces our ability to think clearly. Its addictive qualities add to these impairments and make many individuals more likely to use or try other drugs out of curiosity or the urge to achieve additional side effects.
Marijuana as a Gateway Drug
Marijuana is another gateway drug that causes some confusion. As it becomes legal in more and more states, it remains illegal for recreational use in others. There is a lot of debate around the topic of recreational marijuana use.
There is evidence on both sides of the argument. Some individuals who abuse marijuana, particularly in their teen or early adult years, stop using it at a certain age with no problem. Others abuse and become addicted to illicit substances. Everyone is different.
Experts recommend staying away from recreational marijuana use if you are prone to addiction or have other habit-based concerns. Using marijuana even casually could lead you to crave other substances.
Nicotine as a Gateway Drug
Nicotine is everywhere. You can find it in just about every corner store, gas station, and even many grocery stores. It’s a key component in cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and vape products you can buy in-person or online.
For such a common and accessible substance, you may be surprised to find that nicotine is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Long-term use can cause serious health complications, even when it’s not fatal.
Nicotine is also extremely addictive, which is how it came to be added to the list of gateway drugs. Because of its similarity to other drugs and the high potential for abuse and addiction, nicotine is considered to be one of the most dangerous gateway drugs available.
Are Gateway Drugs Addictive?
Many people wonder: are gateway drugs addictive? Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, either. The truth is that they can be. Gateway substances can be, but aren’t always, habit-forming.
There are a lot of other factors to consider when it comes to why addictions do or do not form. Someone with the same drinking habits as their friends in college may find themselves battling alcoholism for decades while their friends move on, free and clear.
The same is true for users of marijuana. Some become addicted and graduate to more dangerous substances, while others put it down after college or another life event and never look back. The individual matters more than the substance.
Individuals who start young, have a family history of addiction, have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health disorder like anxiety or depression, or live in an environment where substance abuse is normalized, are at a higher risk.
Harmful Effects of Gateway Drugs on the Body
One of the most common and troubling concerns when it comes to gateway drugs is that the transition can be fatal. We mentioned earlier that most heroin users started with prescription pain relievers.
What we didn’t mention yet is that the misuse of and addiction to opioids has become a serious national health crisis. In 2019 alone, nearly 50,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid-involved overdoses. But fatalities aren’t the only concern here.
Drug and alcohol abuse and addiction can lead to a wide variety of mental and physical health impairments. These can range from mild to severe and short-term to long-term. On the milder side, drug abuse and addiction can cause sleep pattern changes and headaches.
On the more severe side, drug abuse and addiction can cause complications like blood pressure changes, abnormal heartbeats, heart attacks, strokes, and comas. Side effects can vary depending on individual factors, including but not limited to:
- The drug itself
- The dosage
- The frequency of use
- The method of use
- Other substances in the body
- Your overall mental and physical health
Treatment for Gateway Drug Dependency
Left untreated, there are rarely positive outcomes to drug dependency. Don’t wait to see what might happen. Help is available, and a better outcome is a phone call away. Finding rehab programs that work starts here at The Discovery House.
We offer a wide range of personalized treatment programs to meet a wide range of unique needs and addictions. Most of these treatment programs start with a monitored detox before moving into inpatient or residential care.
From there, most will move into intensive outpatient care to heal at home while still receiving support and guidance during weekly visits. While this is what works best for many, it is not the only way. Our full-time and part-time programs allow for high-level support and flexibility.
We know that everyone is different. And every addiction is different, too. We’ll work with you to create the plan and the path that will work best for you. Call us today at 818-452-1676 to take the first steps.