In the addiction recovery industry, it’s the question of the ages; it divides advocates for drug law reform and scientists specializing in addiction studies. It is debated on forums, at conferences, and among medical and psychiatric professionals. It’s the fear of parents everywhere yet teens and young adults often blow it off as nothing but paranoia.
It’s the Gateway Drug Phenomenon and while there is still much debate over the validity of certain claims, scientists and doctors generally agree that it does in fact exist.
So what is it exactly? The Gateway Drug phenomenon is the concept that people exposed to drugs and alcohol at an early age (typically through use in early adolescence or throughout the teenage years) are more likely to try harder, “post gateway” drugs: cocaine, meth, or heroin. The Gateway Drug phenomenon was a major contributing factor for the incitement of the so-called “War on Drugs” in the 1970s under president Richard Nixon.
Unfortunately at that time the phenomenon was largely misconstrued.
In current times the idea that smoking marijuana or drinking alcohol will send you into a crazed frenzy of violence, sexual rebellion, and crime seems utterly ridiculous. However during the beginning years of the “War on Drugs” this kind of paranoia was propagated by government agencies and educational institutions as a means of discouraging drug use following the easy living, drug-embracing 1960s (I write more about that in my guest blog post here).
The underlying message of ‘drugs are dangerous and can end in disaster’ is true- but the exaggerated nature of the campaign has done more harm than good. The social idea that those who use drugs or may be addicted should be shamed, ridiculed, and shunned stemmed from the panic ensighted by the propaganda of yesteryear. Today that leads to hesitation in seeking treatment or speaking out, lack of funding for public health organizations serving the substance abuse community, and consequently the unnecessary deaths of thousands each year.
So what is the truth? What substance is most the most prevalent cause of the Gateway Drug phenomenon? Marijuana? Prescription pain killers? Tobacco?
The Palm Beach Institute cited in February of this year that alcohol is not only one of the most heavily abused illicit substances- one in 13 adults- but those who drink are more likely to try other drugs as well. The U.S. Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse reported that 70 percent of young drinkers (aged 12 to 17) also used illicit drugs.
The reason behind this is pretty simple: alcohol is viewed as more acceptable by American society. Because of this it is more readily available to children and teens than drugs like heroin or crack cocaine. Some parents even consciously allow their children to drink due to a false belief that “it’s better than doing it on the streets” or “it’s better than drugs they could be doing!”
This train of thought is not only completely false but also dangerous and more likely to lead to the type of behavior they are attempting to evade. The best way to help your children avoid the urge to experiment with drugs is to have open, honest, clear dialog with them and provide true and accurate information to answer their questions.