Is Alcohol a Gateway Drug?

by | May 29, 2022 | 0 comments

Alcohol consumption if left unchecked runs the risk of substance abuse. But does it also open the floodgates for addiction to harder drugs?

It starts as a seemingly harmless habit –  a sniff, a  puff, or a tiny sip. Mostly it’s just for fun and a little recreation but over time, as consumption of these substances increases, so does the damage it brings to the body.   

Addiction has a story to tell. And like everything else, it has a beginning.

What are Gateway Drugs?

Gateway Drugs are introductory, habit-forming substances that give way to more severe drug use down the road. These drugs are often considered mild so they can be used as a primer to harder drugs. For example, substances like alcohol, marijuana and nicotine can be gateway drugs for harder, more dangerous substances like heroin, opioid and cocaine. 

Soft drugs are often legal and fairly accessible so these substances are first commonly used by teenagers and young adults. The first feeling of being high, of being intoxicated gives users the courage and confidence to try something that offers more pleasure. Drugs and alcohol increase dopamine levels and other feel-good hormones so the more a person drinks or uses drugs, the higher will be their tolerance to these substances. Eventually, this leads to the usage of hard drugs like cocaine and prescription pills to get that heightened sense of euphoria. Addiction then rears its ugly head.

The premise of the Gateway drug theory is that soft drugs like alcohol and tobacco increase a person’s chance of being addicted to hard, illicit and more dangerous substances later in life. However, skeptics of this theory argue that there is no solid scientific evidence to back it up. They assert that several factors like trauma, genetics, untreated mental health issues, family history and other external factors can also lead to addiction. 

Most Common Gateway Drug

Marijuana has been implicated as the leading gateway drug but according to the American Addiction Centers, ” nearly 66% of surveyed Americans reported alcohol as their first substance used”. And this is not surprising as alcohol is very easy-to-get and easy-to-use. Drinking is also considered a rite of passage so it is often initiated during the young, exploratory age of adolescence.

Age is a very critical element in the development of addiction according to the gateway theory. During the teenage and adult years, the brain goes through a lot of dynamic changes and drug or alcohol use before age 25 can seriously disrupt the brain’s progress. The dangers of drinking during this formative stage is backed up by robust data research:

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) : “the younger a person is when they begin drinking, the more likely they are to engage in risky and harmful behaviors” and that “young individuals who binge drink frequently are more likely to use other drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine”. 

Surgeon General’s Report states that “teens who first drink alcohol before age 15 are four times more likely to become addicted at some point in their lives than those who delay drinking until age 20 or older”. 

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse has shown that adolescents who use any addictive substance before age 18 are about 6.5 times more likely to develop a clinical substance use disorder in life. and the Center on Addiction at Substance Abuse at Columbia have these findings on gateway drugs in teens and adults:

Teens who use gateway drugs are 266 times more likely to become addicted to cocaine than those who don’t.

Children who drink are 50 times more likely to use cocaine than nondrinkers.

Adults who drank during their childhood are six times more likely to use cocaine regularly.

Nearly all cocaine users tried marijuana, cigarettes, or alcohol before cocaine; nearly 90 percent had tried all three substances.

Gateway to Recovery

However, scientific researchers also agree that while alcohol use will increase the probability of other drug use in the future, it is not a clear predictor of alcoholism in later life. Nevertheless, alcohol consumption has to be closely monitored especially among teenagers and young adults. Alcohol addiction and other substance use disorders often go hand-in-hand and this presents a morbid scenario.

Talk to experts. Heal@Home is an online alcohol treatment program that gives the best help and support when it comes to alcohol and substance use disorders.  Heal@Home has programs tailor fit for each person’s unique needs. You can also consult certified counselors and attend therapy sessions through an exclusive app so you can still heal without leaving your responsibilities behind.


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