Alcohol – The Real Gateway Drug

This may come as a surprising title. How is alcohol the real “gateway drug”? Wasn’t this usually attributed to cannabis?  Recent findings may surprise you.

What is a “Gateway Drug”?

A “gateway drug” simply means that it is a drug or substance that leads on to the use of other drugs, usually increasingly ‘harder’ drugs. It’s a common link that drug users often start with cannabis and then move on to harder drugs, eventually including cocaine, heroin and meth. In fact, this is one of the arguments against the legalisation of cannabis – that it is a gateway to hard drug taking and a one-way ticket to hard drugs.

The gateway theory

The Gateway Theory was first hypothesised in 1975 by Denise Kandel (a psychiatry professor) who posited that “soft” drugs (such as tobacco and cannabis) are the precursor to “hard drugs” (like opiates, cocaine and methamphetamine). This theory generally states that if you use one drug, you are more likely to use other drugs.

In 2002 Kandel noted the hierarchical and progressive sequence of the stages of drug use, starting with tobacco and cannabis. Starting to smoke isn’t necessarily a precursor to drug abuse though, she stated. Kandel simply noted that there was a sequence which meant that taking such substances can be a precursor to the others, not that it was inevitable.

Alcohol as the real “Gateway Drug”

Recent research from the University of Florida suggests that it is, in fact, alcohol that is the leading “gateway drug” and the leading cause of young people going on to taking drugs. The research found that if alcohol use is prevented in children and young people until later then this reduces their chances of becoming addicted to drugs.

Using the Guttman Scale, the research showed that individuals are drawn into the use of other substances such as cannabis, tobacco and eventually harder drugs were more likely to have done so due to alcohol consumption, particularly consuming alcohol earlier in life. In its comparison of cannabis and alcohol, alcohol was found to be a leader in terms of being the greatest risk and has therefore been dubbed the real gateway drug, in replace of cannabis. The research showed a particular correlation between early alcohol use and later cocaine use.

Why is alcohol the real gateway drug?

This is a good question! It’s long been thought that cannabis holds this place but how come alcohol is actually more likely than cannabis to cause problems with drugs later? One reason may be that there is much less stigma associated with consuming alcohol that with smoking cannabis. The social stigma of weed may be ‘off-putting’ for some as a first choice drug. Alcohol, on the other hand, is much more socially accepted. In fact, many people don’t think of alcohol as a drug at all, much less a dangerous one, due to its availability and affordability.

However, these opinions are often misguided. People can and do die easily from the over-consumption of alcohol. It induces erratic behaviours and it’s easy for an individual to end up harming themselves, or others, due to its use. But alcohol is not taken very seriously as a harmful drug despite its involvement in so many deaths, accidents, domestic violence situations as well as the long term health problems that its overuse and dependence brings too. Society as a whole needs to change its perception of alcohol and take it more seriously. The fact that it is a legal ‘drug’ should not matter.

The science behind alcohol as a gateway drug

This is not just a theory. The research has a biological basis and has shown proven links in rat experiments. Rats were given alcohol each day for a period of two weeks. Whilst this may not sound like a long time, this would be the equivalent of an adult being a regular drinker for several months. After this period of time, the rats had access to a lever through which cocaine was given. The rats could have the cocaine as often as they wanted but there were negative effects to doing so. Each time the rats took a hit there were electric shocks. However, the experiment showed that the rats primed with alcohol took their hits of cocaine regardless of these shocks and were not dissuaded from doing so due to the negative effects.

The rats that had not been given alcohol first did not exhibit such drug-seeking behaviours. This showed that there is, in fact, a biological mechanism working. If exposed to alcohol, you are more likely to find cocaine rewarding but not the other way round. This tells us a lot about addictive behaviours too. The brain experiences changes by the alcohol which amplifies the effects that cocaine has. It effectively activates the reward gene, making the user want more.

The results confirm that the gateway theory is true but that it isn’t based just on the availability or affordability of drugs, it’s based on biology too. That the body is much more sensitive to harder drug exposure once it has been primed with alcohol use first.

More than one gateway to drugs?

It needs to be made clear, however, that while alcohol is most definitely seen as a gateway drug, it doesn’t mean that other drugs are not gateways to the harder stuff. George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says that alcohol, nicotine and cannabis, as well as stress, can all be considered as gateway drugs. Stress obviously isn’t a drug but it does make the human brain more vulnerable to addiction in the same way that the others do. Age is also a large determining factor in later hard drug use, with the earlier you start, the more likely that you will have a problem later in life.

Prevention is better than cure

The investigation’s findings in the University of Florida showed that by giving alcohol some serious attention in school prevention programs will probably have the biggest impact in reducing drug taking later in life. The longer alcohol use is delayed, the greater the effects of such programs. This is really interesting research and backs the idea even more that the health service and schools should be working together to tackle alcohol use in adolescents. Putting of alcohol use in the younger generations could have profound effects on their drug use later in life, thus improving outcomes for society as a whole.