Alcohol abuse has caused a lot of turmoil and chaos in the lives that it has overtaken. Alcoholism does not happen overnight and as time passes the abuse of alcohol becomes worse. Before you know it, your life can spiral out of control in all areas. Luckily, alcohol addiction treatment will provide the therapy and coping mechanisms that will show you how to rebuild and recreate what your life looks like without alcohol. Understanding and processing the causes, thoughts, and behaviors of your alcohol addiction will be the introduction to a life of recovery. Without the open mind to accept the help that is available there is no saying where alcohol abuse can take someone. There is also the question that has become very common among many people: is alcohol a gateway drug? As one of the most commonly abused legal substances in the world, the chances of alcohol leading a person to the use of other substances is very likely. Let’s take a deeper look at what exactly a gateway drug is and if alcohol can be considered one of them.
Substance Abuse and Gateway Drugs
The roots of substance abuse are complex, and many different factors drive individuals to abuse and addiction. These factors fall into two main groups: genetic factors and environmental ones.
When it comes to alcoholism, around half of the risk is thought to come from inherited traits. If you or someone you know has an addiction, there’s an even chance they had a parent who suffered from the same problem. The other half of addiction risks come from environmental factors, including:
- Education level
- Abuse or trauma
- A history of mental health disorders
- A changing life situation
- Personality type
Gateway drugs are thought by some to be another environmental risk factor, but this hypothesis has become more controversial in recent years. Of course, any one risk factor is only a small part of the story. For example, someone whose parent had a drug problem may never have trouble with addiction. However, if they experience trauma or lose their job unexpectedly, issues with substance abuse may begin to arise.
What Is a Gateway Drug?
The gateway drug hypothesis originated in the 1970s in a paper by Kandel and Kaust, which linked adolescent experimentation with alcohol, marijuana or nicotine with an increased risk of partaking in more addictive, illegal drugs when they were older. The cause was thought to be changes to brain chemistry stemming from the use of these gateway drugs, which made adolescents more likely to seek out stronger drugs later on.
However, more recent research has been inconclusive in finding supporting evidence for the early use of alcohol, cannabis or nicotine influencing adolescents toward stronger drugs, including physical changes to the brain. Many scientists have instead hypothesized that those predisposed to addictive behavior may just seek out more accessible drugs before moving on to stronger ones.
As mentioned already, risk factors in addiction are complex and it’s almost impossible to pinpoint one specific trigger for an individual’s addiction. Still, there is a correlation between addiction and adolescents who use so-called “gateway drugs,” which means the notion can still be a useful indicator of possible future problems.
What is the History of Gateway Drugs?
The idea that drug use can occur in stages took root in the mid-20th century. The first drug to ever really get the stigma of a “gateway drug” was marijuana. TV shows such as “The Terrible Truth” suggested marijuana use led to heroin addiction. Researchers then began using the term “gateway drug” in the 1980s to describe substances that initiate these stages. Shortly thereafter, studies began to be conducted. In 1985, a report published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found alcohol to be a steppingstone to use of heavier drugs. As a result of that report, research on gateway drugs blossomed.
Since the 1980s, educators have warned students about the dangers of gateway drugs through programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.). These programs were developed to specifically outline the consequences of three potential gateway drugs: marijuana, alcohol and tobacco. The teaching of gateway drugs has even made its way down into the middle school level.
Is Alcohol a Gateway Drug?
Many people don’t view alcohol as a gateway drug because it’s readily available. Since anyone 21 or older can legally purchase alcohol, it is typically not viewed in the same light as illegal drugs. In fact, when people think about addiction, they usually think of drugs like prescription opioids or cocaine. However, alcohol can be just as addictive and dangerous as any illicit drug.
One study on the gateway drug phenomenon found unequivocally that alcohol represented the reality of a gateway drug. It led to the use of marijuana, tobacco and other illicit substances. The study from the Journal of Scholastic Health found that young people who drank were more likely to use drugs. Unfortunately, the numbers are striking too. High school seniors who used alcohol were 16 times more likely to use marijuana and other narcotics.
Although the research is inconclusive as to where cause and effect lie, there are several conclusions that can be made about links between adolescent alcohol abuse and later use of illicit substances. These include:
- Those who use alcohol in their teens are more likely to abuse illicit substances later in life.
- Alcohol can lower inhibitions, skewing judgments about the use of other harmful substances.
- The use of alcohol is only one risk factor among many. Most adolescents who drink will not go on to use stronger drugs.
- Targeting teens who drink can be a positive way of reducing potential abuse later in life.
- The interrelationships between alcohol, tobacco and marijuana are complex.
The reason for that is because alcohol is an addictive substance. It’s as simple as that. It makes you feel good and you want to continue to have that feeling. The problem with that, though, is its effects on the reward center of the brain. By liking the feeling that you get when you are on it, you can become dependent on those effects. Recognizing alcohol as a gateway drug shows the substance for what it really is. In reality, alcohol is a depressant drug that reduces the ability to think rationally and make good judgment calls. These undesired effects of alcohol only worsen when substance abuse continues over time.
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What Are the Dangers of Drinking?
Regardless of its label as a gateway drug, there are many risks and dangers are involved when it comes to alcohol use in general. Because it is considered a gateway drug though, especially amongst minors, it is important to spread awareness of those dangers. Here are some of the consequences of underage drinking:
- Causes many deaths
- Causes injuries
- Increases the risks of physical and sexual assault
- Can lead to other problems with the law or other substances
- Alcohol Use Disorder (alcohol addiction) can be a possibility
- Increases the risk of cancer
Avoiding alcohol abuse, or any other substance abuse for that matter, is possible but difficult. There is no way of saying who will be affected and who will not be caged in from addiction. What is important is taking preventative measures to educate everyone, especially children, on the consequences of drinking and hope that it will be enough to lead them to the right path.
Other Factors in the Development of Addictions
As we’ve seen, the evidence that gateway drugs influence the future development of substance and addiction problems is sketchy and sometimes conflicting. As the issue revolves around finding ways to prevent young people from developing these problems, you would think a lot of research would have been done.
Unfortunately, establishing cause and effect can run into significant ethical issues. The best studies for determining cause and effect are randomized control trials (RCTs), which would involve giving groups of adolescents alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana to see how they react. RCTs have been undertaken in this area with rats; however, there are significant differences between humans and rats in how they react to a complex set of environmental and genetic factors.
Therefore, most addiction studies have been performed by observing groups of people over time and looking for possible links. The studies that gave rise to the gateway drug hypothesis observed those who had a cocaine addiction and looked into whether they had been exposed to marijuana, alcohol or smoking as a teen. Unfortunately, these same teens were also exposed to many other factors over which those conducting the study had no control.
Alcohol Versus Nicotine and Marijuana: Comparing Gateway Drugs
The original three gateway drugs each have their defenders and detractors, but just how dangerous are they as gateway drugs? The statistics on their use should provide some light on this subject. A recent study on links between gateway drugs and opioid use found the following:
- 57% had used alcohol prior to opioid use (men only).
- 56% had used cigarettes (men only).
- 34% had used marijuana (men and women).
Although this might posit alcohol as the strongest gateway drug, it does not prove cause and effect. The following statistics provide more insight:
- 69.5% of adult Americans reported using alcohol in the last year.
- 4.2 million adult Americans used marijuana in 2021.
- The CDC reported that 12.5% of Americans smoked nicotine in 2020.
If all these cases led to the use of harder drugs, there would be a much larger problem with drug addiction in the United States than currently exists. With 1.3 million Americans showing signs of a cocaine use disorder in 2020, there is clearly a significant problem, but it cannot all be laid at the door of gateway drugs.
The Road to Leading an Addiction-Free Life
Although the gateway drug hypothesis concentrates on how alcohol can lead to abuse of illicit drugs, you shouldn’t underestimate how damaging alcohol itself can be in cases of abuse and addiction. A recent study showed that an estimated 414,000 Americans between 12 and 17 struggle with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), with 14.5 million over 12 suffering the same.
Many of those suffering from AUD never seek treatment, which can be vital to recovery and avoiding future harmful use of substances. At FHE Health, our professional and experienced staff can help you or a loved one dealing with AUD to move on from addiction to a healthy, productive future. Contact us today and take the first steps toward leading an addiction-free life.