What Is a Gateway Drug?

To prevent family members and other loved ones from developing substance use disorder (SUD) and addiction, it helps to become educated about the risk factors for substance abuse. While there are many reasons why people choose to use drugs, it is imperative to understand that once a person is exposed to the chemical effects of substance use, they instantly become vulnerable to continued use. Some may say that only certain substances, like marijuana, are considered gateway drugs. However, due to the addictive nature of most drugs, any drug can be considered a gateway drug.

At 12 South Recovery, we offer addiction and mental health treatment programs that are customized and individualized to fit the unique needs and recovery goals of each client we serve. No matter where a person stands in their journey to sobriety, we can provide the guidance and support they need to establish and maintain lasting abstinence. We recognize that the use of substances in any quantity can trigger the development of addiction. For this reason, we open our arms to all of those who seek recovery.

Defining a Gateway Drug

According to an article by Neuropsychopharmacology, “The gateway drug hypothesis refers to the pattern of substance use during adolescence whereby legal substances, such as nicotine and alcohol, precede the progressive use of illicit substances like cocaine and heroin.” Despite this definition solely addressing legal substances as gateway drugs, it is important to recognize that any and all drug use can increase an individual’s vulnerability to engage in more harmful drugs or develop drug dependence.

In addition to well-known gateway drugs like alcohol, nicotine, tobacco, and marijuana, other examples of gateways to recurrent substance use or substance dependence include:

Why the Adolescent Brain Is Uniquely Vulnerable to Gateway Drug Use

It is also crucial to understand that while adolescents are not the only ones affected by gateway drugs, they tend to be the most vulnerable to the effects of substance use. This is because adolescents are experiencing a critical developmental period. To be more specific, the brain does not fully develop and mature until an individual reaches their mid-20s. Furthermore, one of the last brain areas to mature is the prefrontal cortex; responsible for planning, thinking things through, and making good decisions.

An article by The Prevention Researcher explains this further, stating, “Brain development research also shows that the maturing brain may be particularly vulnerable to the acute effects of drugs, and that drug use during adolescence may significantly increase a young person’s risk for developing a substance use disorder [SUD] later in life.” Contrary to what some may believe, there is no “safe” form of substance use. Regardless of what type of drug an individual is using, the drug can be recognized as a gateway drug because it opens the gate to continued substance use as well as the development of SUD.

Addressing Additional Risk Factors for Addiction

Although the use of any drug can increase an individual’s risk of developing addiction sometime in their life, not everyone who uses drugs will develop an addiction. As addiction is a complex condition, many factors impact whether or not a person will develop it. Youth.gov highlights the following risk factors for substance use among youth:

  • Early aggressive behavior
  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Unresolved traumatic experiences
  • Peer rejection
  • Lack of parental supervision
  • Parental or peer substance use
  • Undiagnosed mental health problems
  • Drug availability
  • Poverty
  • Academic problems

What’s more, the earlier these risk factors kick into gear, the higher an individual’s vulnerability to using alcohol and other drugs throughout their life. Some may feel more inclined to experiment with substance use for perceived drug effects. Others will engage in substance use in an attempt to self-medicate distress.

Warning Signs of Substance Use Disorder and Addiction

Those impacted by gateway substances can benefit greatly from knowing the warning signs of SUD and addiction. Noticing the signs is the first step in harnessing sobriety and recovery. The National Insitute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) highlights the following warning signs:

  • Continuing to engage in drug use despite problems it is causing to one’s life
  • Spending more time with deviant peer groups
  • Engaging less in self-care
  • Having reduced academic motivation
  • Losing interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Getting in trouble with the law
  • Experiencing noticeable changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Having greater conflict among family and friends

Treating Gateway Drug Use at 12 South Recovery

Healing from the use of gateway drugs is no easy feat. This healing requires a personal willingness to accept one’s need for help and to fully commit to lasting sobriety and recovery. However, those things are much easier said than done. Fortunately, our team of professionals at 12 South Recovery is here to walk every step of the way with those seeking recovery.

We offer several outpatient programs aimed at treating not only a client’s symptoms but also the underlying causes of their distress. For many seeking to heal from SUD, unresolved trauma is the culprit to their continued substance use. Thus, in our treatment program, we utilize a wide range of approaches to ensure that these individuals can effectively overcome their traumas. We also provide family therapy and family programs to help the entire family become educated about addiction and implement protective factors against addiction or possible relapse.

Despite the fact that any person can be affected by a gateway drug, everyone also has the chance to recover. Allow our team of professionals to guide loved ones toward healing today.

Contrary to what some may believe, alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco are not the only types of gateway drugs. A gateway to harmful forms of substance use or the development of addiction can include any chemical substance that creates a sense of euphoria. Still, not everyone who uses drugs will develop an addiction. Additional risk factors, like unresolved trauma, must also be acknowledged when addressing your risk of substance use disorder. At 12 South Recovery, we offer a number of outpatient treatment programs aimed at helping individuals and their loved ones to heal from the lasting impact of addiction and other mental health disorders. Learn more about our treatment programs and services today by calling (888) 830-8374.

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