Gateway Drugs: Everything You Need to Know

Can some socially acceptable and apparently harmless substances lead to addiction? Gateway drugs can open the path to the dark world of addiction. It’s virtually impossible to come across a person who uses hard drugs, like cocaine or heroin, without first experimenting with less harmful and more socially acceptable substances.

This article explores the concept of a gateway drug and looks more into the science behind them to answer some of the most asked questions about the substances that open the doors to substance abuse. 


What is a Gateway Drug?

Many people believe that continued use of certain gateway drugs can, over time, lead to developing a substance use disorder and using harder drugs. The popular “gateway theory” states that young people who use less harmful drugs are more likely to use illicit drugs later in life. 

Proponents of the theory believe that less dangerous drugs cause the brain to develop a unique “taste” for highly addictive substances. When combined with an addictive personality, these drugs can cause a full-blown addiction. 

People in this mindset will think gateway drugs examples include:

  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Marijuana

However, it’s interesting to explore this concept further to determine if these commonly used drugs are really where the journey to illicit substances begins, or if the doors to the gate actually open sooner than we might think. 


Common Substances We Don’t Realize Are Gateway Drugs

It’s common to think that marijuana is the ultimate gateway drug, due to its legality. Before coming to this conclusion it’s important to ask what makes a drug a drug? Is it only a pathway drug because it’s illegal? Because it’s addictive? 

In the United States, it’s very common for adults and children both to use addictive substances that alter their minds and behavior on a daily basis. Most people overlook these as dangerous, but some argue that if you apply the same logic, some legal drugs are the real gateway drugs. 

This section discusses some daily-use drugs that have a high potential to turn into illegal drug addiction and mental health issues.



You might be wondering how on earth caffeine made it to the gateway drugs list. But we cannot deny what science says. 

In 2008, a team of researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studied the addiction potential of caffeinated energy drinks. They found a strong link between caffeine dependence and cocaine abuse. 



Sugar addiction is real, but can it lead to other forms of addiction? Let’s find out. 

Sugar works in the same brain areas as do narcotics and cocaine. That way, it may activate your brain’s reward center like other drugs of abuse do. Some studies have noted that using too much sugar might act as a gateway for alcohol and cocaine use. 




Alcohol is everywhere, whether you are celebrating your success or mourning a breakup, and alcohol use disorder is more common than you may realize. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and Alcoholism (NIDA), in 2019,

  • 85.6 percent of Americans 18 and older said they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime.
  • Nearly 70 percent said they drank in the previous year.

Because alcohol is legal and socially acceptable, many people consider it harmless. However, when we look closely, we find some disturbing stats. For example, adults who used alcohol in their childhood are 6x more likely to become regular cocaine users. 



Like alcohol, cigarette smoking is common. About 40 million U.S. adults smoke cigarettes. Even worse, every day, nearly 1,600 people below 18 smoke their first cigarette. The adverse effects of smoking are well established, but its role as a gateway drug is often overlooked. 

One study revealed that adults who smoked cigarettes during their childhood are 3x more likely to become regular cocaine users. 



The mild-altering effects of marijuana (cannabis) come from a chemical called THC. Though federally controlled, its medicinal and recreational use is legal in some states. As such, marijuana use is widespread among young people and adults. In 2018, 11.8 million young adults said they used marijuana use in the previous 12 months. 


Is marijuana a gateway drug?

THC affects how brain cells communicate with each other. Thus, people that use marijuana can be more vulnerable to these pathways to addiction. Adults who used marijuana during their childhood are 17x more likely to become regular cocaine users. 


Fast Facts

Youths (age 12-17) who use alcohol, nicotine, and cannabis are more likely to use cocaine than children who never used any of these substances. Here’s how that looks broken down:

  • Drink alcohol are about 50x more likely to use cocaine
  • Smoke cigarettes are 19x more likely to use cocaine 
  • Use cannabis are over 80x more likely to use cocaine


How to Help A Loved One Who is On the Path to Addiction?

The use of gateway drugs does not necessarily mean someone will end up using hard drugs. Yet, the risk always persists and can progress to addiction problems. Thus, you have a valid reason to be concerned. 

If you think your loved one is on a dangerous road, call us at 855-953-1345 and talk to one of our care coordinators. Opus Health has helped hundreds of people who started on the path to addiction find their way back to a healthy happy life. 


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