Recovery is possible. We are open 24/7. 866-797-7962

What are Gateway Drugs and Do They Really Cause Addiction?

Medically Verified: 2/1/24

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Drug addiction and alcoholism are progressive diseases that cause individuals to compulsively abuse substances. Typically, addiction is caused by a combination of factors, including environmental, emotional, and genetic components. However, many people believe that addiction can be triggered by the use of certain substances referred to as “gateway drugs.”

To explain, the gateway theory of addiction is the idea that the use of one particular substance causes people to be at a higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. This idea became popular in the 1970s and 1980s to bring attention to the so-called “war on drugs” to single out specific substances like marijuana. People believed that using marijuana would cause individuals to seek out harder or more potent versions of drugs like heroin or crack cocaine.

Understanding what the gateway drug theory is and how it does or does not lead to addiction can help people grasp the root causes of substance use disorder.

What Does the Term “Gateway Drug” Mean?

A gateway drug is an introductory substance that an individual uses. Typically, these substances are easy to obtain and habit-forming, such as alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana. The theory is that using a gateway drug will lead to a progression of substance abuse, causing individuals to seek out increasingly worse forms of substances.

To explain, gateway drugs are thought to alter neural pathways in the brain. This means that once a person uses the gateway substance regularly, their brain will become rewired to behave as if the substances are what cause them to feel reward and pleasure. In other words, when a young person uses a gateway drug, it changes something in their brain to make them more susceptible to worsened versions of drug abuse.

Drugs like marijuana and alcohol increase dopamine levels in a person’s brain. This means when young people use those substances, they will experience an intense euphoric high. As they continue to use marijuana or alcohol, they will be chasing that initial high.

This is what causes people to believe the gateway drug theory. As the person chases that initial high, they build a tolerance to the gateway substances they were using. After they realize they cannot experience the same effect anymore, they will turn to more potent forms of drugs.

Common Gateway Drugs

Gateway drugs are usually introductory and habit-forming substances that young people can access easily. This means tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana are the most common gateway drugs. Let’s take a look at each substance and how it could cause someone to seek out other forms of drugs.


Tobacco is often the first drug young people try. Cigarettes and electronic vapes are extremely common among the young population. According to the CDC, “Each day in the U.S., about 1,600 youth smoke their first cigarette and nearly 200 youth start smoking every day.”[1]

Numerous studies have found that using tobacco at a young age opens up the door for further substance abuse. According to the National Institutes of Health, “Nicotine, the researchers found, makes the brain more susceptible to cocaine addiction. The finding suggests that lowering smoking rates in young people might help reduce cocaine abuse.”[2]


Alcohol is another substance that is easy for kids to get ahold of, causing many young people to use this drug as an introductory substance. The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that nearly 25% of 14 to 15-year-olds reported having at least one drink and 7 million young people from ages 12 to 20 reported drinking “more than just a sip” of alcohol in the past month.[3]

According to a study completed by the National Library of Medicine, “alcohol represented the “gateway” drug, leading to the use of tobacco, marijuana, and other illicit substances.”[4]


Marijuana is the most commonly accused gateway drug, with many people believing that using this substance will lead to the use of more potent drugs like cocaine or heroin. This is often because marijuana is the first drug people try, as the effects of this substance are much milder than other drugs.

However, some studies have found evidence that marijuana could be a gateway drug. According to a study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “adults who reported marijuana use during the first wave of the survey were more likely than adults who did not use marijuana to develop an alcohol use disorder within 3 years.”[5]

Do Gateway Drugs Really Cause Addiction?

It is important to be aware of the most common root causes of substance use disorder. Oftentimes, people who develop an addiction to substances are suffering in other aspects of their life. Most commonly, it stems from childhood trauma, an untreated mental health condition, or a genetic predisposition.

The National Library of Medicine explains that early childhood trauma often leads to addiction due to attempts to self-medicate or a dysregulated biological stress response caused by the trauma itself.[6]

In other words, when it comes down to it, addiction is usually caused by adverse life experiences and an inability to cope with difficult emotions. However, exposure to drugs at a young age will most definitely cause a person to become more susceptible to developing an addiction if they struggle with the common root causes of addiction.

This means that young people who are genetically predisposed to addiction, have suffered from trauma, or deal with an unmanaged mental health condition should stay away from all substances – even tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana. Using these substances could trigger something in their brain, beginning the cycle of substance abuse and addiction.

Finding Help for Drug Addiction

If you or a loved one struggle with substance abuse, it’s time to seek help. Abusing drugs of any kind can lead to addiction, which is a chronic and progressive disease that often renders people unable to function in their daily lives. Thankfully, professional drug and alcohol treatment centers can help you or your loved one overcome the effects of drug abuse and addiction by treating the root causes of substance abuse.

Contact Carolina Recovery Center today for more information on our drug and alcohol treatment programs.