The Gateway Drug You Didn’t Expect: Alcohol Takes Centre Stage


In the ongoing debate about substance use, a new study has turned the tables on the long-held belief that cannabis is the ‘gateway’ drug leading to the use of other substances.

The research, conducted on young adults, suggests that it’s actually alcohol that plays the pivotal role in leading to other substance use.

The Gateway Theory Revisited

The ‘gateway’ theory has been a cornerstone of drug policy and prevention strategies for decades. It suggests that the use of ‘softer’ drugs, like cannabis, opens the door to ‘harder’, more harmful substances.

A recent study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence has challenged this notion, suggesting that alcohol, not cannabis, is the real gateway drug.

The study analysed data from over 8000 young adults across five waves of the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health study from 2013 to 2019.

The researchers examined the prevalence of trying cannabis before alcohol or tobacco and the association of initiating cannabis first with single and poly-substance use.

Cannabis Before Alcohol and Tobacco Unusual

Contrary to popular belief, the study found that initiating cannabis use before alcohol and tobacco was relatively rare, with only 6% of participants reporting this sequence. This finding challenges the common narrative that cannabis is the first step on the path to other substance use.

Interestingly, those who did initiate cannabis before alcohol and tobacco were more likely to report past 30-day cannabis and tobacco use. However, they were less likely to report past 30-day alcohol use. This suggests that early cannabis use may even protect against future alcohol use.

The More Common Path: Alcohol Before Cannabis and Tobacco

The study revealed that the majority of participants initiated alcohol use before either tobacco or cannabis.

This finding turns the traditional ‘gateway’ theory on its head, suggesting that alcohol, not cannabis, is the more common first step towards other substance use.

Also, the study found that initiating cannabis at the same age as alcohol or tobacco, or after these substances, was associated with increased odds of all substance use outcomes. This further underscores the role of alcohol as a potential ‘gateway’ to other substance use.

safe cannabis

Implications for Public Health

These findings have significant implications for public health policies and prevention strategies.

They suggest that efforts to deter cannabis initiation alone may not be sufficient to prevent substance use. Instead, strategies should also focus on alcohol, given its role as a potential ‘gateway’ to other substance use.

The study also highlights the need for further research to understand the complex relationships between the use of different substances.

Conclusion: Time to Rethink the ‘Gateway’ Drug

This study challenges the traditional ‘gateway’ theory and suggests that we need to rethink our understanding of substance use initiation. It’s not cannabis, but alcohol, that appears to be the real ‘gateway’ to other substance use.

While more research is needed, these findings underscore the importance of focusing our prevention efforts on alcohol use. By doing so, we may be able to make a significant impact on reducing substance use and its associated harms.

It’s time to unmask the real gateway drug: alcohol. By shifting our focus and strategies, we can better address the complex issue of substance use and work towards healthier futures for our young adults.

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