If you asked someone what they thought of as “gateway drugs,” in today’s current opioid epidemic, they would probably say something along the lines of prescription painkillers as a gateway drug to stronger, illicit substances like heroin. And, there actually have been studies illustrating a clear link between the two.
The second drug that would perhaps seem the most apparent offender is marijuana, especially as decriminalization and legalization become more commonplace. However, there is an even more widespread gateway drug, one that has escaped notice due to how normalized it is.
And that’s alcohol.
According to reports, 88,000 people die from alcohol-related incidents each year in the U.S., which makes alcohol-related incidents the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the nation.
Alcohol misuse, alcohol poisoning, and the problems that result from abusing alcohol cost the U.S. hundreds of billions of dollars each year, which includes law enforcement, emergency services, and alcoholism treatment. And yet, it remains a legal, commonplace, acceptable substance.
What Is a Gateway Drug?
A gateway drug is a term for the first substance that someone might use, abuse, and eventually, develop a dependency to before either building up a tolerance and seeking a more potent substance or becoming curious about other substances after initially using one.
Of course, substance abuse is never the result of just one thing or even two. Rather, there is a whole spectrum of contributors behind why one person might be more vulnerable to addiction than another, including trauma, family history, mental illness, and even some form of genetic predisposition.
That being said, the concept that a substance can serve as a gateway drug for someone who might not have otherwise developed an addiction to multiple substances remains a popular one. In the case of alcohol specifically, it should be no surprise how alcohol overwhelmingly leads the way as the initial substance a person will try before moving on to drugs when the facts are considered.
Alcohol: a Socially Acceptable Substance
Alcohol is more than just a legal substance; it’s an incredibly prevalent one. It’s almost easier to try to list places in the United States where alcohol isn’t available for purchase rather than the places it is.
But there is more to it than just the fact that alcohol is widely available and easily attained. It has been normalized in the mainstream of our country for decades. It is commonplace now to get drinks after work, at the movies, at sports games, at dinner, to celebrate, to mourn, and so much else.
Because drinking alcohol is so “normal” and socially acceptable, it serves as the starting point for many people who end up as drug addicts. Someone may start out just drinking socially, only to have alcohol become a bigger part of their routine until they find themselves counting down the hours until they can have their next drink, or looking to alcohol as a means of relief and refuge.
Even if the person doesn’t become dependent on alcohol, there is still the risk that they will transition from drinking to using drugs. This could happen while drunk, or it could be a natural extension of the habit of drinking to experience relief and enjoyment.
According to a 2015 study, it was found among the group of polysubstance abusers that the majority of them had used alcohol before trying either tobacco or marijuana and eventually moving on to other drugs as well.
Can Underage Drinking Lead to Drug Abuse?
Because of both the accessibility and public perception of alcohol, it’s no wonder that in the United States 60 percent of teens have consumed alcohol by age 18, and 33 percent even earlier than that at 15.
Children that begin using alcohol in their teen years and earlier are significantly more likely to not only develop a dependence on alcohol but also, in fact, have it become a gateway to using and abusing other substances. In a study specifically surveying high schoolers who were abusing multiple substances, it was found that more of them had used alcohol than any other substance and that even those using other substances had first started with alcohol.