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Is alcohol a gateway drug? Learn what is a gateway drug and why alcohol can lead to illicit drug use.

Alcohol is a substance that is enjoyed by many people. From having a few drinks at a celebration to sharing a toast with your loved ones, it serves its purpose as a way for people to connect with each other. However, the effects of alcohol can be dangerous if consumed too often, and heavy intake can lead to other bad habits.

One of the side effects of alcohol is that it can be a gateway drug that leads an individual to experiment with other harmful substances.

And from recent studies, it appears that Americans are increasing their alcohol consumption more than before. According to a 2017 JAMA Psychiatry study that collected data from almost 80,000 participants in the past 12 months:

  • 65% to 73%. Within the adult population, alcohol use rose from 65% to 73%, which is approximately an 11% increase.
  • 10% to 13%. Within the adult population, high-risk drinking rose from about 10% to 13%, which is approximately a 30% increase.
  • 9% to 13%. Individuals with alcohol use disorder (AUD) increased from 9% to 13% within the adult population, which is approximately a 50% increase.

But the adult population (aged 21 and over) is obviously not the only demographic that consumes alcohol.

Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), a survey that interviewed nearly 270,000 people aged 12 and older, found that current and binge drinkers were as young as 12-13 years old. Heavy drinking started as young as 14-15 years old.

With such strong data pointing to an abundance of heavy alcohol use and abuse, it’s apparent why alcohol is commonly called a gateway drug.

What is a Gateway Drug?

Whether an individual is just experimenting, drinking casually or in the depths of addiction, it’s not uncommon for alcohol to eventually lead them to chase the high and go searching for a new, more potent intoxicating feeling.

Essentially, this is what a gateway drug is.

By definition, a gateway drug is a substance that has a high potential of leading an individual to using and/or becoming addicted to harder, illicit drugs.

The Effects of Alcohol Use

Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol for a long time can significantly harm the brain’s neural pathways. Neural activity is deeply influential to each function of the brain. In turn, long-term alcohol use negatively affects an individual’s behavior, cognitive functioning and mood.

  • Alcoholics become emotionally reliant on the substance, leading to depressive symptoms or feelings of anxiety associated with failure or hopelessness.
  • Long-term alcohol use can negatively impact an addict’s personal perspective, self-esteem and overall wellbeing.

Because alcohol alters the brain and weakens mental and emotional states, it is more prevalent for individuals struggling with alcohol addiction (as opposed to individuals who do not consume, do not abuse or are not addicted to alcohol) to transition on to more dangerous substances.

Transitioning from Alcohol to Illicit Drugs

Addiction ensues because of rising tolerance levels. Once an individual’s tolerance increases, they must consume more alcohol to achieve their desired buzz or high. The transition happens when wine, the liquor or the beer just doesn’t do it for the individual anymore. The buzz and intoxication has lost its luster and the need to fill that void pulls people in the direction of illegal substances they thought they’d never dabble with.

It is at this point when alcohol addicts may turn to alternative substances in order to achieve increased levels of intoxication, making alcohol an entry point to illicit drug use.

In addition to the effects of alcohol use on the brain, there are elements associated with alcohol that make it easier to transition into using other drugs:

  • Alcohol is consumed at an early age. As noted earlier in the article, studies start collecting data on individuals as young as 12 years old and highlight their underaged alcohol consumption.
  • Alcohol is normalized by family members, like grandma offering you a sip of wine at the dinner table or dad handing you a beer on a family fishing trip.
  • Alcohol is legal, making it much more readily available than other drugs. This eliminates the need for people to have to call a dealer or meet in a shady back alley. Most people can just open their refrigerator to find a cold one.

This social acceptance and normalization of alcohol use throughout the course of a person’s life minimizes the addictive qualities and dangerous consequences associated with excessive alcohol consumption.

If you’re addicted to alcohol or have traded alcoholism for another drug addiction, there is help if you want to quit and live a sober life. You don’t have to fight this battle on your own.

Transformative Alcohol and Drug Treatment at Covenant Hills

Regardless if alcohol proves to be a gateway drug for you or not, you know heavy alcohol use must come to an end if you want to live a meaningful, whole life.

Your chapter(s) on addiction can come to a definitive end at Covenant Hills. Much more than traditional addiction rehab, addiction recovery at Covenant Hills focuses on your whole person – giving your mind, body and spirit the attention and nurturing it deserves to fully heal. Through our faith-based, individualized addiction treatment, your psychological, emotional, physical, nutritional, fitness and spiritual needs will be addressed and supported throughout the entire healing process.

Learn about our faith-based alcohol and drug addiction treatment programs, or contact us for a free and confidential assessment.


JAMA Psychiatry. Prevalence of 12-Month Alcohol Use, High-Risk Drinking, and DSM-IV Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States, 2001-2002 to 2012-201, Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Accessed June 11, 2018.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. Accessed June 11, 2018.