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Gateway Drugs: How Does Addiction Start?

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The word “addiction” comes from a Latin term for “enslaved by” or “bound to.” Anyone who has struggled to overcome an addiction – or witnessed a loved one dealing with it – understands why.

It begs the question: Does anyone really want to be a captive to a chemical? Is a voluntary surrender? Self-sabotage? Or is it a cleverly disguised ambush?

This article explores the mystery of addiction –  how lives can be seduced and sucked into a relentless downward spiral. Starting with one simple act. But what act might that be? Is one particular drug more of a culprit than another? And where is the point of no return, when addiction has a user firmly in its grip?

While debate seems to never end about which, if any, drugs are THE gateway to addiction, this truth remains: the seismic effects of a substance use disorder can swell from the smallest seed of surrender.1

What Entices Humans to Mess Around with Drugs and Risk Getting Addicted?

Happy young womanPeople are motivated by pleasure. While what brings about pleasure can differ from one person to another (sports, sex, music, art, nature, etc.), how the human brain processes pleasurable sensations is universal.

When people do something that makes them feel good, their brain releases dopamine to teach them to seek out this activity in the future for that good feeling to be repeated. The human brain stores these memories. The feeling is connected with what activated it.

In a healthy brain, dopamine is eventually reabsorbed. Dopamine levels return to normal. The euphoric feeling fades away. Life goes on. But the brain files the association away for future reference.

When a person takes drugs, the chemical functioning of the brain is altered. One of those changes is that the brain is made to produce more dopamine than it would for a non-drug-related reason. Reabsorption of the dopamine is blocked. There’s a prolonged sense of pleasure beyond what’s normal for the brain.

The sensations are so powerful and long-lasting than the brain urges the user to find more of what did it. Normal activities – once enjoyed – now fade in value to the user. Drugs become the only well of contentment.

Eventually, the body and mind become so hooked on the drug of choice that to not take it again causes uncomfortable – possibly painful –  withdrawal symptoms. It is at that point that a diagnosis of addiction is certain. Desire turns to craving, and living without drugs becomes unimaginable.

It is common knowledge that drug users often seek out more and more potent substances over time. The body’s tolerance to what was initially used is the reason for this course of action. It seems necessary. Pleasure seems harder to attain with the same drug. So, a more powerful (and addictive) drug is pursued.2

As mentioned at the top, there is no global agreement about which drug(s) are the stepping stone into the world of drug addiction.

The Primary Gateway-Drug Suspects Are Generally Accepted by the Public as “Safe”

Certain drugs (like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines) are infamous for how they can mess up the brain. Most people know to beware of their potency and danger. Other substances (such as alcohol, marijuana, and painkillers) tend to be viewed quite differently. For many Americans, they are deemed to be much less dangerous. But is this view accurate?

Indeed, on their own, these more generally accepted substances might not prove to be a danger to many. But when combined with certain risk factors, even these commonly used chemicals may pose a threat. In fact, such drugs may actually work to pull users toward more powerful – and more addictive – substances.3

The Risk Factors for Addiction

One point of debate is the role that individual risk factors play in the development of addiction.

The Mayo Clinic compiled a list of such factors that might actually determine who is prone to addiction:

  • Genetic makeup.
  • Family history of addiction.
  • Stressful home environment.
  • Pressures at work or school.
  • Having a mental health condition (such as anxiety or depression).
  • Peer pressure (to smoke or drink).
  • Lack of education about substances being taken.
  • Access to more of the substances or other drugs.4

This quote might best sum up the topic of proclivity for acquiring a drug addiction: “Most people who become addicts are subject to a combination of risk factors.” Anything from childhood trauma and having alcoholic parents to being exposed to drugs at an early age can influence whether a person takes their first hit or their first drink. And whether addiction will develop.5

Is Cannabis Really a Gateway Drug?

Marijuana fieldA study published in Addiction found that those who smoked cannabis more than 50 times a year had “hazards of other illicit drug use” that were 140 times higher than people who did not use marijuana.6

Why is this? One reason may be that the relatively mild effects and initially low risk of addiction might cause users to consume it regularly. Secondly, a side effect of cannabis is the lowering of inhibitions, which may cause users to drop their guard when it comes to trying stronger drugs.

The fact is, use of marijuana, as well as nicotine and alcohol, is likely to come before experimentation with more potent drugs. Many studies show that early exposure to addictive substances, like the chemical THC in marijuana, may change how the brain responds to other drugs.

Although considerable research supports the idea of marijuana as a gateway drug, the fact is that the majority of people using this highly popular substance don’t go on to use harder drugs.

Furthermore, the legalization of marijuana for medical or recreational use in a growing number of states may affect the court of public opinion as well.7

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says, on the one hand, that a person who smokes marijuana is 104 times more likely to use cocaine. However, it then questions the assumption that marijuana necessarily leads to more dangerous forms of drug abuse. The conundrum is that correlation isn’t the same as cause.8

“There is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs,” states the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine. The Institute goes on to assert that underage smoking and alcohol use seem to better fit the profile of gateway drugs. The Institute points out that nicotine and alcohol typically precede marijuana use. This may be true by virtue of the fact that cigarettes and beer are often easier to obtain than marijuana.

To further complicate matters, the line between abusing drugs and being dependent on them is not a clear and simple one, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And dependence on a drug does not always mean that there’s an addiction, though the two often coincide.

Drug abuse is a spectrum, starting with misuse of a prescription or outright drug experimentation and ending in a full-blown addiction.

The Debate Aside, People Still Have Real Needs

Addiction is a complicated issue. And so, the matter of gateway drugs cannot easily be resolved. But, take comfort in knowing that, no matter how concerned you might be for yourself or a loved one, there are experts nearby to help provide you with the answers you want to bring clarity and peace of mind.

Michael’s House is home to many specialists in the field of drug addiction and other mental health issues. We offer access to our vast experience. Not only are we willing to share information, but we can provide you with some of the very best in evidence-based treatment available today.

Our beautiful and tranquil environment is the perfect setting for focusing your full attention on healing. Here you can find wholeness. Here you can regain your authentic self. Here you can find the freedom to imagine how life might be without drugs. Peace and purpose – that’s what you can find through your dedicated effort under the guidance and support of your advisors and friends at Michael’s House.


1Addiction and Choice: Theory and New Data.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, Volume 4, Issue 31, 2013.Accessed 5 October 2017.

2Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, July 2014.Accessed 5 October 2017.

3Is Marijuana a Gateway Drug?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, August 2017.Accessed 5 October 2017.

4Drug Addiction: Risk Factors.” Mayo Clinic, CON-20020970. 5 December 2014.Accessed 5 October 2017.

5 “Addiction: Nature vs. Nurture.” PsychCentral.9 June 2015.Accessed 5 October 2017.

6Does Cannabis Use Encourage Other Forms of Illicit Drug Use?Addiction, Volume 95, Issue 4, Pages 505-520, April 2000.Accessed 5 October 2017.

7Marijuana.” DrugFacts, National Institute on Drug Abuse, August 2017.Accessed 5 October 2017.

8Marijuana as a Gateway Drug: The Myth That Will Not Die.” TIME.29 October 2010.Accessed 5 October 2017.

9Fears of Marijuana’s Gateway Effect Vastly Exceed the Evidence.” The New York Times, 26 April 2016.Accessed 5 October 2017.

10The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, October 2016.Accessed 5 October 2017.

11 Substance Use Disorder.” MedlinePlus. 3 October 2017. Accessed 5 October 2017.