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Gateway Drug Use In Teens

Two teens smoking a marijuana joint  

For decades, the problem of teen drug use has frustrated parents, teachers, law enforcement and medical experts. Such experts continuously worked to find ways to prevent substance use or stop it from escalating from “soft drug” use to “hard drug” use.

Those experts defined the concept of gateway drugs. By separating myths from facts about gateway drugs, parents and teachers can inform teens and stop substance abuse problems before they start.

What Is A Gateway Drug?

A gateway drug is generally one drug that makes using other drugs in the future more likely. The gateway drug theory states that a person who uses a gateway drug may keep using this drug or their use will escalate to include more potent and dangerous drugs in the future.

The gateway drug theory is supported by evidence from casual observation among people using drugs. Most people can think of examples of acquaintances who started substance use by sneaking a drink of alcohol or smoking marijuana at a party only to see use increase over time to include drugs like cocaine or heroin.

Several studies have also demonstrated the effects of the gateway drug theory in rats. These studies frequently show that rats that are exposed to one substance are much more likely to seek out other substances in the future. Not all drugs have this effect, though. One study found rats that consumed alcohol or nicotine were more interested in cocaine, but rats exposed to cocaine first did not show more interest in cocaine.

In these examples, the alcohol and nicotine were the gateway drugs that led to the use of the “harder” drugs.

Critics of the gateway drug theory are quick to point out that the vast majority of people who use drugs like alcohol or marijuana never move one to use other illicit substances. They may also feel that it is a stretch to believe experiments done to rats provide valid conclusions about the human brain.

Common Gateway Drugs Used By Teens

Proponents of the gateway drug theory believe that caution and prevention are necessary to slow the progress of teen substance abuse. By giving teens access to all the views and theories around substance abuse and addiction, they can make an informed decision.

As mentioned, not all substances are gateway drug examples. As an authority on drug use in teenagers, Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E) and other experts on addiction have a short list of gateway drugs including:

  • Marijuana
  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco or nicotine
  • Prescription drugs

More than any other group, teens and young adults tend to use these gateway drugs. Although their use may be intended for fun, experimentation or a way to improve their social experiences, use can quickly result in addiction or the desire to use other drugs.


Marijuana is a drug that commonly comes to mind when discussing gateway drugs. Studies conclude that marijuana use in teens often leads to the use of other drugs in the future.

According to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World:

  • Children between ages 12 and 17 who use marijuana are 85 times more likely to use cocaine than other kids
  • About 60% of people who use marijuana before turning 15 will use cocaine at some point in their lives

The repeated use of marijuana in rats increases their desire for opioids. These findings support the idea that marijuana use is also a gateway to drugs like prescription pain medications and heroin.

With the legalization of the substance, viewing marijuana as a gateway drug is more controversial than ever. Even D.A.R.E sees the current research on marijuana’s gateway drug status as “inconclusive.”


For many people, alcohol is the first substance they misuse. More than half of 12th graders list alcohol as their first drug use, which results in high rates of teenage alcoholism. Because of this factor, many continue experimenting or experience addiction to other substances.

Like with marijuana, people who drink alcohol are much more likely to use:

  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamine
  • Heroin

Early alcohol use seems to be especially problematic. If someone consumes alcohol by age 18, they are 50 times more likely to use cocaine compared to a teen who does not drink.


It turns out that tobacco products with nicotine have a profound ability to change the brain and make it respond differently to other substances. People who use nicotine products are more likely than others to try cocaine and to become addicted to it.

When kids smoke, they are 19 times more likely to use cocaine than children who never smoked. These effects may present while the person is a teen or carry over into adulthood, so using gateway drugs can impact someone’s life for decades to come.

Prescription Drugs

People may not consider prescription drugs to be a gateway to illegal substances, but there is evidence suggesting prescription stimulants and opioids lead to other drugs. Even over-the-counter medicine abuse can eventually contribute to the use of “hard drugs.”

Stimulants are medicines frequently prescribed for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and sleep problems. Teens and young adults abusing these substances may also abuse:

  • Cocaine
  • Ecstasy
  • Opioids
  • Hallucinogens

Prescription opioids are helpful for reducing perceptions of pain, but these drugs are often abused for their ability to produce a euphoric high. A person who abuses the drug may run out of their prescription quickly and then seek other opioids to achieve their desired high. In many cases, a person will turn to heroin in this situation because it can be cheaper and more readily available than prescription opioids. 75% of people entering treatment for heroin addiction report prescription opioids were their gateway drug to heroin.

How to Find Help for Your Teen

Finding help for your teen may seem confusing and intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be that way. In the beginning, talk to your teen about the dangers of alcohol and other drugs while looking for the warning signs of addiction.

If your teen struggles with a substance use disorder, contact Next Generation Village. Call to speak with a representative who can explain how professional treatment can address addiction alongside co-occurring mental health disorders. Take the first step toward a healthier future for your teen, call today.


Arria, Amelia M.; DuPont, Robert L. “Nonmedical Prescription Stimulant Use Among College Students: Why We Need to do Something and What We Need to do.” Journal of Addictive Diseases, October 2010. Accessed September 17, 2019.

Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. “The Five Stages of Addiction.” August 8, 2012. Accessed June 8, 2019.

Cadoni, C.; Pisanu, A.; Acquas, E.; Di Chiara, G. “Behavioural Sensitization After Repeated Exposure to Delta 9-Tetrahydrocannabinol and Cross-Sensitization with Morphine.” Psychopharmacology, November 2001. Accessed September 17, 2019.

Columbia University Record. “National Study Shows ‘Gateway’ Drugs Lead to Cocaine Use.” November 18, 1994. Accessed September 17, 2019.

Foundation for a Drug-Free World. “The Truth About Marijuana.” Accessed September 17, 2019.

Ingraham, Christopher. “The Real ‘Gateway Drug’ Is 100% Legal.” The Washington Post, January 6, 2016. Accessed September 17, 2019.

Marr, John N. “The Interrelationship Between the Use of Alcohol and Other Drugs: Overview for Drug Court Practitioners.” U.S. Department of Justice, August 1999. Accessed September 17, 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Prescription Opioids and Heroin.” January 2018. Accessed June 8, 2019.

National Institutes of Health. “Why Nicotine is a Gateway Drug.” November 21, 2011. Accessed June 8, 2019.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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