Over the years, researchers have developed a number of theories to explain why some people struggle with addiction and others do not. One of the best-known theories regarding the development of substance use disorders is the gateway hypothesis.
Understanding the Gateway Hypothesis
The gateway hypothesis has been around since the 1970s and states that certain psychoactive substances are more likely to lead to additional substance abuse issues when used by teens and young adults. Addiction researchers developed the hypothesis after realizing that many people seeking substance abuse treatment had a history of progressing from using common and less addictive substances to using harder and more addictive substances. Typically, these individuals began their descent into addiction at a very young age.
The gateway hypothesis is most often associated with Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), an educational effort used in elementary schools across the United States during the 1980s and 1990s where local police officers worked to discourage children from experimenting with drugs and alcohol. The program has been criticized for implying that all types of substance use are equally harmful, but D.A.R.E. officers continue to make adjustments to the curriculum to reflect an improved understanding of what behaviors are most likely to put children at risk of future addiction struggles.
Recent research into brain development supports the gateway hypothesis. It’s important to remember that the human brain does not finish developing until a person is in their mid-20s. Alcohol or drug use as a teen or young adult can disrupt normal brain development in complex ways that increase the risk of addiction as well as mental health disorders such as depression. When brain development is disrupted and gateway drugs increase normal dopamine thresholds, it becomes more difficult for a person to find pleasure in everyday activities. This increases the odds that they will seek additional addictive substances as a way to get the “feel good” sensations they crave.
Please note that the gateway hypothesis does not claim experimentation with gateway drugs will automatically lead to further substance abuse and addiction struggles. The hypothesis merely points out the increased risks associated with early experimentation with drugs and alcohol. Substance use disorders are complex illnesses with both biological and environmental risk factors. It’s impossible to say with certainty that one specific action will cause a person to develop an addiction. However, fully understanding the behaviors that put people at risk is vital in identifying individuals in need of treatment.
Types of Gateway Drugs
There are three main gateway drugs: alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana.
- Alcohol. There is the most evidence to suggest that alcohol is a gateway drug. Studies have shown that alcohol is the most widely used substance, initiated at the youngest ages, and the first substance most commonly used in the progression of substance abuse.
- Nicotine. Smoking or vaping may seem harmless compared to other types of substance abuse, but nicotine is often one of the first addictive substances young people encounter. A study involving mice found that mice given nicotine in their drinking water showed an increased response to cocaine. A national survey found that over 90% of adult cocaine users between 18 and 34 were smokers before they began using cocaine.
- Marijuana. A study using longitudinal data from the National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders revealed that marijuana use was associated with an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder within three years or having a preexisting alcohol use disorder worsen in severity. The same study also found a link to an increased risk of nicotine addiction. Studies done with rats found that exposure to cannabinoids in adolescence decreases the reactivity of the brain’s dopamine reward centers even in adulthood.
Some people believe that alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana are the most common gateway drugs because their use is also the most socially acceptable. Many young people who would never consider trying heroin or cocaine see nothing wrong with drinking, smoking, or using marijuana as a way to fit in with their peers. The adults in their lives may also be less inclined to intervene when faced with evidence of this type of substance abuse.
There’s Always Hope for Recovery
Regardless of how a person begins their addiction, it’s important to understand that it’s never too late to get help. Substance use disorders are easiest to treat in the early stages, but evidence-based care can promote a lasting recovery regardless of past relapse or other risk factors.
At St. Joseph Institute for Addiction, we provide individualized services for men and women struggling with substance use disorders. Our clients receive individual and group counseling, 12-Step support, and physician support. Pain and stress management, nutrition and fitness instruction, and spiritual support are also provided to encourage the development of a wellness-focused lifestyle.
If you’re ready to change your life for the better, we can help. Contact us today for more information or complete our online insurance verification form and we’ll contact your insurance provider to help you better understand your benefits and any deductible or copay that may be required for treatment.