Although the exact origin of the term gateway drug remains uncertain, the use of the term seems to have accelerated sharply in the early
to mid-1980s in conjunction with the U.S. “war on drugs.” The notion that the use of certain substances tends to precede the use of other substances, however, predates the widespread use of the term gateway drug. Initial research, for example, found that adolescent substance use tends to progress in four stages: abstinence, use of alcohol and cigarettes, use of marijuana, and use of other illicit substances. Further research suggests that this general progression is apparent among both males and females, although limited research suggests that cigarettes may play a more critical role in the progression among females, among those with and without arrest records, and across numerous nations in both Western and Eastern cultures.
Despite a wealth of empirical research suggesting that the use of certain substances tends to precede the use of others, there remain two separate meanings of the term gateway drug. According to one meaning, a gateway drug is one whose use precedes, but does not necessarily cause, the progression to more dangerous substances. According to a second meaning, a gateway drug is one that both precedes and causes an individual’s escalation to more dangerous drugs. The distinction between these two definitions is critical for an accurate application of the gateway concept to the social control of substance use. Specifically, the second definition implies that preventing the use of drugs that come earlier in the general sequence would serve to prevent the use of drugs that come later in the sequence. The first definition, however, implies that preventing individuals from using drugs like alcohol and marijuana will not necessarily prevent them from using drugs like cocaine or heroin.
Although much political rhetoric suggests that society should crack down on the use of gateway drugs as a means of preventing individuals from progressing to more dangerous drugs, most research concerning the gateway concept has examined only the first of the above two definitions. Given the absence of widespread research concerning the second definition, political rhetoric concerning the need to crack down on the use of gateway drugs may be based on a faulty premise. Despite the reliable finding that the use of gateway substances generally precedes the use of more dangerous substances, the same research simultaneously finds that the use of gateway drugs does not always precede the use of more dangerous substances. Efforts to stem the use of gateway drugs may therefore not serve reliably to prevent the use of more dangerous substances. Following an analogy developed in the research literature, slow and careful driving cannot legitimately be viewed as a cause of reckless driving even though the former almost invariably precede the latter.
Given the limited amount of research that has attempted to determine whether the use of substances early in the typical drug-use sequence actually cause the use of substances later in the same sequence, future research will likely be aimed at determining whether the former causes the latter. Establishing such a causal relationship will require the demonstration of an empirical finding that has not yet been demonstrated reliably. In particular, it will require demonstrating that the use of gateway substances increases the probability of using more dangerous substances even after controlling statistically for the influence of other variables that might be said to cause both early gateway drug use and the later use of more dangerous substances. Preliminary research, for example, has used longitudinal data from a sample of young adults to demonstrate that the time-one use of marijuana predicts the time-two use of more dangerous substances even after controlling statistically for such variables as age, race, stressful life events, gang membership, and prior hard drug use. Given the limited number of control variables used in such research, as well as its focus on only one gateway substance, further research will be needed before the scientific community will be able to claim with any degree of certainty that the use of gateway substances causes hard drug use.
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