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Addiction starts out as seemingly harmless substance misuse and abuse. This occasional recreational habit can quickly turn into a deadly dependence on a much more dangerous drug.

Many people mistakenly believe that this could never happen to them, but it’s not unheard of for a teenager smoking marijuana to eventually try cocaine or someone to abuse painkillers only to find themselves shooting up heroin later. Are gateway drugs the cause of this substance use spiraling out of control?

What Are Gateway Drugs?

Gateway drugs are substances that are believed to lead to the use and abuse of other more dangerous drugs as well as potentially the development of an addiction. Generally, gateway drugs are considered “soft drugs” or substances that are thought to be less harmful than other “hard drugs.”

Although gateway drugs may not be as hazardous to someone’s health as other substances of abuse, the danger of gateway drugs is that they may increase the risk of someone misusing or becoming dependent on other substances.

Are Gateway Drugs Real?

The validity of the gateway drug theory is sometimes debated. Many experiments and studies do find a correlation between the use of gateway drugs predating the abuse of other drugs. There is also research that suggests that exposure to gateway drugs can lead to changes in the brain that can make someone more sensitive and vulnerable to other drug abuse.1

Regardless, some people argue that whether someone uses gateway drugs is irrelevant and their other substance abuse would occur anyway. Others suggest that gateway drugs make the transition to harder drugs easier.

In reality, addiction is a complex disease. The use of gateway drugs is probably one of many factors that can increase a person’s risk of becoming dependent on drugs.

Common Gateway Drug Examples

The list of gateway drugs can change from source to source as well as from time to time as new studies are conducted and more evidence comes to the surface.

Based on current research, some examples of gateway drugs include:

  • Marijuana
  • Nicotine
  • Alcohol
  • Prescription painkillers


There is a growing push to legalize marijuana across the United States, but marijuana may not be completely harmless. Some studies suggest that not only is marijuana addictive for some users but also marijuana is a gateway drug for some people.

The National Epidemiological Study of Alcohol Use and Related Disorders found that adults who used marijuana were more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder within three years compared to those people who did not use marijuana.1


There have been several studies surrounding nicotine as a gateway drug. One such study found that of cocaine users, almost 88% had smoked cigarettes before starting the use of cocaine.2 Other research has found that priming mice with nicotine can enhance the effects of cocaine and will make the mice more likely to seek out cocaine.2 Although this experiment was done on rodents, it may give insight into what is happening in human brains as well.

Although thought to be a safer alternative to cigarettes, vape pens are also a concern for many parents. Still containing nicotine, e-cigarettes may act as gateway drugs as well.


Although legal for Americans over 21, alcohol can be problematic, and some people need professional alcohol addiction treatment to stop drinking. Even though it can be a major problem on its own, some people won’t stop there. Alcohol is often thought of as a gateway drug for some, especially for teens and young adults. 12th graders who drank alcohol were significantly more likely to use both legal and illegal drugs than their peers.3 Like nicotine, there is also evidence that alcohol can alter the brain in a way that leads to a heightened response to other drugs.1

Prescription Painkillers

With the ongoing opioid epidemic, the abuse of prescription painkillers is an area of major concern. Not only is this dangerous on its own, but also heroin use is about 19 times higher in those that have abused pain relievers than those who did not.4 Other reports suggest that as much as 80% of heroin users began abusing prescription painkillers before trying heroin.4 To avoid the many dangers associated with heroin, people abusing painkillers should seek opioid addiction treatment sooner rather than later.

While the exact facts about gateway drugs may still be partially unknown, substance abuse of any kind can be dangerous.  Many people who use gateway drugs will never go on to develop an addiction, but for others, gateway drugs are the first step down a dark and dangerous road.

Instead of going too far down the wrong path, take a step in the right direction. Our drug rehab center in Mississippi offers a full continuum of care to help people at every stage on their road to recovery. Contact us today to get started. At Vertava Health Mississippi, we are here for you.

Call Vertava Health now!