The term “gateway drug” is widely used to describe dangerous substances that teens and adolescents typically consume. Many people wonder what it means to be labeled as the ominous “gateway drug” and how it may apply to them or their children. By understanding the theory and intricacies behind gateway drugs, we can learn how to prevent drug abuse and identify when it’s time to get drug and alcohol treatment

The Gateway Drug Theory

The gateway drug hypothesis revolves around the idea that certain drugs — once introduced to children or adolescents — begin the process leading to addiction. These drugs are often viewed as the key that opens the door toward a lifetime of dangerous drug consumption. Many critics have challenged the gateway drug theory, claiming that numerous other factors lead to addiction. Still, many of these drugs are widely used in society, leading to lengthy mental, physical, and emotional battles with substance abuse.

Most Common Gateway Drugs

The most common gateway drugs are ones that we regularly hear about. Many consider alcohol or cigarettes gateway drugs because of their socially acceptable nature (sold at stores, less negative stigma), making it easier for children to want to try other illicit drugs. Others consider marijuana the most common gateway drug due to its growing acceptance in society and negative reputation in the minds of many. These following substances are referred to as gateway drugs for parents and children to look out for.


The marijuana industry is on the rise, with its legality and growth stemming from ideological changes regarding the impact of the drug. Because of how easy it is to consume and how it makes people feel, marijuana is often used as a short-term remedy for teens dealing with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. 


Alcohol is usually introduced in high school or college through binge drinking. Alcohol is only legal for individuals 21 and older but is used en masse at much younger ages. Teens who cannot control their impulses or are inexperienced and unable to handle alcohol are at greater risk of problems in the future.

Prescription Drugs

Opioids are one of the most abused prescription drugs and are just one example of the growing prevalence of prescription drug abuse. Substances like heroin and fentanyl are often the next step, mixed to achieve greater and greater highs. These harder drugs are extremely dangerous, leading to many overdose deaths. 


Ecstasy is frequently used in rave culture and is usually consumed within a group or larger setting. Because of peer pressure and societal ranking, ecstasy is seen as a gateway drug to harder substances such as cocaine or methamphetamine.


Sometimes children start off with “lesser” substances like glue, shoe polish, or permanent markers. Studies have shown that some of these children eventually turn to stronger drugs in the years following their exploration of these inhalants.

Are Gateway Drugs Really the Cause of Addictions?

Many critics who doubt the gateway drug theory cite the belief that it takes away from the real causes of substance abuse. Many teens and adolescents turn to these drugs to relieve stress, overcome traumas, and battle mental illnesses. It’s widely believed that consumption of these drugs can lead to an increase in substance abuse, but many other factors play a role. 

Teens are more likely to become addicted to a drug if they’re going through life difficulties, environmental factors, lack of social life, or even genetic factors. By focusing on these risk factors, parents can help get their children the help they need to prevent or recover from substance abuse. Some additional risk factors include:

  • Genetics
  • History of Abuse
  • Depression
  • Social Life Difficulties
  • Environmental Factors
  • Traumatic Events

Steps to Recovery Can Be the Gateway to Overcoming Substance Abuse and Addictions

Gateway drugs put fears in the hearts of many parents, and unfortunately, for good reason. These substances are often many of the more addictive drugs, leading to substance use disorders and other mental health problems. Steps to Recovery can provide treatment programs for substance use disorders that help individuals recover from drug or alcohol addictions and prevent the abuse of gateway drugs. If you or someone you love needs help ridding themselves of addicting substances, contact Steps to Recovery today at 267.719.8528.