What Today’s Parents Should Know About the Gateway Drug Theory
While scanning the latest news, it’s easy to feel as if we’ve traveled back in time to the 1980s. “Just say no?” “The war on drugs?” After nearly three decades, there’s still little evidence to suggest these outdated addiction prevention and treatment strategies work, and some evidence even shows that they are counterproductive. Yet, they continue to influence how we both talk about and treat addiction. And just last month, dialogue about the “gateway drug theory” resurfaced in the New York Times, raising the question: is this highly publicized hypothesis, which also originated in the final quarter of the 20th century, grounded in fact or fiction? We answer this question – and more – below.
WHAT IS THE GATEWAY DRUG THEORY?
First popularized in the 1980s, the gateway drug theory purports that adolescent use of tobacco, alcohol or marijuana increases an individual’s risk of using and/or developing addiction to other licit and illicit substances that may be perceived as more harmful, such as opioids, cocaine and methamphetamines.
ARE TOBACCO, ALCOHOL AND MARIJUANA GATEWAY DRUGS?
In a sense, yes, but the important thing to note is that every drug is a gateway drug if used during adolescence or young adulthood while brain development is still underway.
Whether it’s nicotine, alcohol, marijuana or opioids, it is the age of the person initiating use – not the specific substance itself – that increases the risk of using other addictive substances and developing addiction.
WHY ARE YOUNG PEOPLE WHO SMOKE, DRINK OR USE DRUGS MORE SUSCEPTIBLE TO DEVELOPING ADDICTION?
During adolescence, the human brain goes through numerous developmental changes in structure and function. While the areas of the brain associated with memory, learning, judgment, decision-making, risk-taking, reward, emotion and stress are maturing, they are uniquely vulnerable to the damage that addictive substances such as nicotine, alcohol and other drugs inflict on these critical brain functions. That damage to the brain not only makes the individual more susceptible to addiction, but it also further impairs the skills needed to make good decisions and sound judgements, heightening the risk of future substance use and addiction.
WHAT CAN PARENTS DO TO HELP THEIR KIDS AVOID ADDICTION?
To protect our kids, let’s not label certain drugs “gateway drugs.” Instead, let’s strive to prevent our kids from misusing any addictive substance before adulthood. Research clearly shows that among people who did not smoke, drink or use drugs until age 21 or later, only four percent suffer from addiction. Yet, 25 percent of people who began these behaviors before turning 18 meet the clinical criteria for substance use disorder.
Each year a child’s use of tobacco, alcohol or other drugs is delayed significantly decreases his or her risk of developing this devastating disease.
Hannah Freedman is a communications and digital associate at the Center on Addiction