Is Alcohol Used as a Gateway Drug?

Recently, healthcare professionals have been debating whether or not alcohol can be considered as a gateway drug.

Any drug that affects the body in a psychoactive (psychological) manner can be considered as a gateway drug, including drugs such as cocaine, cannabis, crack-cocaine, meth, or ecstasy. Medical theories suggest that the use of gateway drugs can be linked to the probability of further drug use beyond the psychoactive category. This happens due to the fact that the chemistry of the brain is altered, leading individuals abusing drugs to seek out and self-administer different and often more potent drugs to achieve the desired effects.

Beginning in the 1930s, it was thought that cannabis (marijuana) was the primary gateway drug. Anti-cannabis campaigns outlined the dangers that result from cannabis use. Anti-cannabis films and other literature emerged, showing the purported harsh and dangerous effects of marijuana use. Two movies, “Reefer Madness” and “Devil’s Harvest,” now considered to be cult movies, were designed to strike fear into the audience by showing that people using cannabis became lazy, drug-crazed, immoral, and insane, and that life-long dependency was a given -after just one puff.

More recently, politicians like former New Jersey governor Chris Christie and former congressman Patrick Kennedy (who struggled with drug addiction himself) hold the belief that cannabis is a gateway drug and have made anti-marijuana legislation large parts of their political careers.

Is Alcohol Used as a Gateway Drug?
While there is evidence to support the claim that some drugs lead to the use of others, a recently published paper suggests that marijuana use is not the only, or even primary, starting point for abusing other drugs as was suspected. Instead, the study suggests another culprit. It claims that alcohol is a much more dangerous gateway drug.

The paper, “Prioritizing Alcohol Prevention: Establishing Alcohol as the Gateway Drug and Linking Age of First Drink with Illicit Drug Use,” uses data collected for the Monitoring the Future project at the University of Michigan and was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The University of Michigan study collected data on the behaviors, attitudes, and values of American secondary school students on an annual basis. Authors of the paper, a group of researchers from Texas A&M and the University of Florida, analyzed data that related to the drug use of 2,800 12th grade students.

The results of that analysis showed that more students reported using alcohol prior to their first use of cannabis. Alcohol was clearly the most common first substance used, the most widely consumed, and the one that was initiated the earliest -with some students reporting that their use began as early as the 6th or 7th grade. Researchers found that these children typically progressed to trying other illicit drugs in the following years. The notable contrast was children who had not tried alcohol by 12th grade and had almost never attempted using any other substance.

According to the findings of this paper, it appears that alcohol can be considered to be a gateway drug just based on use patterns -however, the research team notes that this is an observation. Since the study looked at 12th graders, there is a consideration that this group has not had as much time to experiment with drugs compared to people who are older. Researchers also state that other factors, such as home and school environment, genetics, and the like, could influence the collected data and conclusions.