There’s long been a theory about “gateway drugs” and how they serve as common pathways to “hard” addictions. This article will introduce readers to these most common gateway drugs, and through anecdotal stories, talk about some of the ways in which people have gone on to hit their “rock bottom” with harder, more addictive drugs.
What is a Gateway Drug?
A gateway drug is any substance that can become habit-forming and lead users on a path toward the eventual use of other more addictive and dangerous drugs. In this sense, gateway drugs can serve as a transition from experimentation and casual use of less addictive or habit-forming substances to more serious addictions. Gateway drugs may be legal substances, such as nicotine and alcohol, but pose significant health risks. They may also be illicit drugs.
Here’s a look at the most common gateway drugs.
A central nervous system (CNS) depressant, alcohol impairs brain function and motor skills. Among adolescents, alcohol is often the first drug they experiment with. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 4.9 million people started drinking alcohol in the past year, an average of about 13,400 people a day. About 6,200 adolescents a day started using alcohol in 2019, totaling 2.3 million adolescent alcohol initiates.
Marijuana and Cannabis
For a long time, marijuana has been referred to as a gateway drug. Whether cannabis is harmful and can if act as a gateway drug is widely debated. This is especially true now that numerous studies seek to determine the benefits of marijuana as a pain reliever and its potential use as a substitute for opiates. Research shows that marijuana affects users’ attention, motivation, learning ability, and memory.
There were 3.5 million new users of marijuana in the United States in 2019 and about 9,500 initiates to marijuana every day. More than 48.2 million people said they used marijuana in the past year. This includes 3.3 million adolescents. The contention is that marijuana increases tolerance for stronger drugs. The International Journal of Drug Policy found that nearly 45 percent of regular marijuana users also used other illicit drugs later in life. These drugs include heroin.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), marijuana users are three times more likely than non-users of marijuana to abuse the illicit drug heroin.
While depictions of smoking in movies and TV shows have dramatically declined in recent years, nicotine is still a legal drug. It is also highly addictive. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) considers nicotine one of several gateway drugs. The research found that more than 90 percent of adults using cocaine said they consumed nicotine by smoking cigarettes before they went on to use the illicit drug cocaine. In 2019, 1.6 million people started smoking, about 4,400 people a day. First-time smokers among adolescents, though, were about 1,500 adolescents a day, totaling 541,000.
The phenomenal increase in nicotine vaping and other products, including marijuana, can increase the risk of dependence on these drugs, as well as paving the way for experimentation and use of other more addictive substances. There are anecdotal reports of young people vaping who quickly became dependent on the nicotine they ingested.
Common gateway drugs also include prescription drugs that users have become dependent on or abuse for non-medical purposes. Abuse of prescription medications includes opioids for pain, as well as stimulants like Adderall prescribed for ADD and ADHD.
The CDC noted that opioid users are 40 times more likely to abuse heroin than non-users. Why do users of prescription opioids make the switch to heroin? Many say it’s cheaper, while others admit they can no longer get a prescription for their opiate drugs. In 2019, about 404,000 people misused prescription pain relief drugs and used heroin in the past year.
Gateway drugs can also include other substances, like inhalants, ecstasy (MDMA), energy drinks, and anabolic steroids.
Are There Often Traveled Paths to Harder Drugs?
What happens after a history of casual use of gateway drugs? What is clear is that gateway drugs increase dopamine levels. For example, alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, and prescription pain relievers all increase levels of dopamine in the brain and body, producing feelings of pleasure and reward.
Such brain chemistry alteration may cause users to search for stronger drugs that deliver higher dopamine releases. Researchers also suggest that gateway drugs prepare the brain to respond to other addictive substances. This is known as “cross-sensitization.”
Anecdotal Stories of How People Reached their Rock Bottom
What are the paths people take to rock bottom? Are there some common ones? Let’s look at some anecdotal stories to determine some common themes.
- Binge Drinking Got Out of Control – High school kids partying at friends’ homes. College students engaging in competitive drinking contests and waking up afterward in strange places with no memory of what happened. These are frequent themes in posts about how alcohol users began their descent to rock bottom. They drank because they liked how uninhibited it made them feel until the consequences started to mount and they couldn’t stop.
- Couldn’t Keep a Job – Once people descend into frequent drug use, many parts of their everyday life begin to suffer. There are numerous reports on social media sites where drug users admit they knew they’d hit rock bottom when they could no longer keep a job. They’d be fired for constant absenteeism, making costly mistakes, falling asleep at work, angry outbursts, and complaints from co-workers about their behavior.
- Smoked Weed all the Time– Some marijuana users revealed that their descent to rock bottom became apparent to them when their studies took a backseat to smoking weed all the time, hanging out with other pot-smoking friends, and focusing on videogames and YouTube videos while eating junk food. Their school grades took a dive and many lost scholarships. Without rehab, they say they’d still be stuck in the same addictive pattern.
- Brain in Total Disarray–Meth addicts who tried to get off the drug that they took to deal with the effects of ADD and ADHD said they couldn’t function. Depressed all the time, they felt the only way to cope was to use again. All their savings were soon gone, their veins mostly collapsed, and they mixed meth with Xanax to make it last longer.
- Thoughts of Ending it All– Some drug users confessed that they didn’t see any reason to keep on living after their lives had gone so far astray. They’d lost all family connections, friends gave up on them, their finances were ruined, and they didn’t bother to take care of themselves anymore. A few said they only abandoned thoughts of suicide because they knew they’d chicken out. Their sadness and despair were palpably obvious in their posts.
- Friends Offered Harder Drugs – For some marijuana users, it wasn’t that they sought out harder drugs. Friends they hung around with that also smoked pot offered them these drugs. Peer pressure, wanting to fit in and be accepted, and being naturally curious and feeling invincible led to experimentation and getting hooked. Over time, they couldn’t handle their lives getting out of control and felt they’d reached rock bottom.
Seek Help Before It’s Needed
While some paths are more commonly traveled, there are many ways for people to hit their bottom. Hopefully, they can realize what’s happening in sufficient time to avoid serious and potentially long-lasting consequences and seek help before they need it.
If you or a loved one feel like your life is slipping out of control due to drug and/or alcohol use, help is available. Contact FHE Health to get immediate and confidential answers to your questions about what treatment, counseling, or other assistance may be available to help you recover.
Remember that asking for help is the first step toward healing. Yes, it takes courage. But being able to get back to enjoying a rewarding life is well-worth the effort.