woman facing window with wine glass behind herThe gateway drug theory states that people who try one addictive substance are at a greater risk for all addictions as a direct result. It’s unlikely someone with no other genetic, social or environmental factors would start abusing illicit substances because they drink alcohol.

However, for individuals who do have a predisposition to drug or alcohol abuse, there’s evidence to show that using alcohol during adolescence increases the chance of progressing to harder drugs in later life. Read on to find out more about alcohol as a gateway drug

What Is a Gateway Drug?

The gateway theory has been around since the 1970s, and recent science supports the hypothesis to some extent. In the 1980s, before scientists understood the mechanism of addiction, the gateway theory was presented as something of a scare tactic. Campaigns were launched to suggest that anyone who tries a cigarette will instantly become addicted to hard drugs.

Unfortunately, this tactic probably did more harm than good, but the theory itself is grounded in truth. Individuals who are at risk of becoming addicted to illegal drugs are more likely to require addiction treatment in later life if they drink alcohol habitually or smoke cigarettes during adolescence. It’s not just because of genetics and brain chemistry but also factors such as lack of parental supervision and observing adults abuse substances during childhood.


Why Is Alcohol a Gateway Drug?

Alcohol is a particularly dangerous gateway drug for individuals who have a predisposition to develop substance use disorders. The main reason is that it’s legal, freely available and therefore very easy to hide or stay in denial when a problem develops. It’s often several years before someone realizes they have an alcohol use disorder, and by then, significant changes to the brain have taken place.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways alcohol abuse potentially primes the brain and body for cocaine addiction, opioid dependence, meth abuse and other SUDs.


Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that’s responsible for reward, pleasure, movement and a variety of other functions. Disorders in this system are the main reason people develop addiction, although it’s still unclear whether substances cause disordered dopamine systems or those who become addicted already have a disordered dopamine system.

When you drink alcohol, it triggers a huge influx of dopamine in the body. This is because the system is activated when we do something we enjoy. As such, the more you enjoy getting inebriated, the more at risk you are of developing an SUD.

The gateway theory suggests that once this dopamine system is disordered, the individual is more likely to seek out other drugs of abuse to try to emulate or surpass the high of getting drunk. Cocaine use, meth use and opiate use trigger the dopamine system in far greater quantities than alcohol, which leads to a more intense high and a much more severe recovery period.

While not everyone who’s addicted to alcohol will move on to other drugs, the prevalence of SUDs is higher in alcoholics.

Loss of Inhibitions

Another major reason people progress from alcohol to harder drugs is because alcohol drastically reduces inhibitions. While an alcoholic might not like the idea of getting high on drugs while sober, a mixture of peer pressure, curiosity and carelessness could lead them to try it. If they try hard drugs once and enjoy it enough to repeat it another time, they’ve massively increased their chances of developing comorbidity.

Repeated use is another risk factor for developing addiction, which is important to note with regard to the gateway hypothesis. Trying something once or twice won’t instantly turn you into a drug addict, but continued use over time is playing with fire.

Normalizing Party Drugs

If you go out and party a lot, particularly binge drinking on weekends, there’s a good chance you see people taking part in recreational drug use. Over time, if going out and getting drunk is something you enjoy, this type of behavior becomes normalized. Because of the evidence you see with your own eyes, it might seem like “everybody does it, so it must be fine.” Actually, it’s just a small subset of society that uses drugs recreationally.

Once something is normalized, your defenses could go down and you’re more open to trying something you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Seeking a More Powerful High

The body is pretty amazing at adapting to heavy alcohol use, which is why tolerance builds up relatively quickly in people who abuse it regularly. For those who enjoy getting drunk from a sensation-seeking perspective, this could lead to seeking harder drugs with a more powerful high.

Partying Harder

On the flip side of the coin, some people who drink heavily never fully adapt to large amounts of alcohol. In these instances, amphetamine or cocaine use allows them to continue partying and drinking longer.

Changing Friendship Circles

Gateway drugs - Friends having fun on the beachPeople often have a party group of friends they might see as separate from their family members and long-term friendship group. While this is perfectly normal and healthy, it can lead to trouble if this group of friends is into illicit substance use.

Why Are Young People at an Increased Risk for Illicit Drug Use?

Young people are much more vulnerable to developing mental health disorders. What’s more, their brains haven’t yet fully developed — particularly the areas involved with self-control and inhibitions. As such, young people are more likely to get in with the wrong crowd or go through with carrying out a behavior they know logically is harmful.

Get Help for Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol and drug addiction affects people of all ages, but use of alcohol and other drugs as a young adult is closely linked to adult substance use disorders. If you or a loved one is displaying the signs of substance abuse, you can get help. Call Calusa Recovery today at 844-254-9664 and we’ll talk you through how to get started on the road to recovery.