What is a gateway drug, and why is it called that? A gateway drug is a mild, usually legally, stimulant that provides pleasurable sensations in users by increasing the level of dopamine in the brain. However, a problem arises when continual brain stimulation changes the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine, increasing the urge in some individuals to experience ever-greater highs than what’s possible with gateway drugs. This desire leads to experimentation with cocaine and heroin, which causes even more changes in the brain. This alteration in the brain’s chemistry often results in addiction when the need for the drug is overwhelming. In other words, these “soft” drugs open the gate to the hard-core stuff.


What Are the Most Common Gateway Drugs?


What is a gateway drug? By taking a quick look around your house, you’re apt to find many gateway substances. Gateway drug examples include alcohol, nicotine, marijuana, and some dopamine-releasing prescription drugs like Ritalin that your child may take to help with their attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).


What Are the Short and Long-term Effects of Gateway Drugs?


A comprehensive gateway drugs definition wouldn’t be complete without discussing the short-and-long-term effects of the three most commonly mentioned gateway drugs: alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana.




Many social drinkers have never experienced the ravages caused by alcoholism. However, these short-term effects may sound very familiar:


  • Hangover
  • Impaired judgment
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Falls


While these may not be pleasant side effects, they typically disappear within 24 hours. The following long-term effects can be a huge burden on your everyday life or even lead to death:


  • Accidents
  • A variety of cancers, including liver, colorectum, breast, and esophageal
  • Diabetes
  • Cardiovascular disease



Once you start smoking, it’s tough to stop. Here are some short-term side effects for the lucky ones who manage to kick the habit:


  • Bad breath
  • Diminished sense of taste and smell
  • Coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Exposing others to secondhand smoke


As is always the case, long-term use is more damaging to the body. Here are some things that nicotine addicts can look forward to if they don’t quit:


  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Lung disease
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Diabetes



Marijuana is illegal in some states but is becoming more accepted for medicinal and recreational uses. Effects vary among users, but the following list includes some common experiences:


  • Laughter
  • Altered time perception
  • Coordination problems
  • Cognitive difficulty
  • Hunger


Some chronic users will develop what’s known as a marijuana use disorder that can manifest itself physically and emotionally. The use is addictive when you can’t stop, even when your habit harms your life and loved ones. Here are some signs that you may be dependent on marijuana:


  • Depression and anxiety
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Respiratory problems
  • Sleep disorders
  • Worsened schizophrenia symptoms

What Are the Risks of Gateway Drugs?


The risk of using one of the starter drugs is that it will lead to an increased chance of addiction to that drug or act as a gateway for a more potent drug that may take control of your life. This tragic occurrence is most likely to happen if drug use begins during adolescence when the brain is still developing.


You may say you’re only hurting yourself, but that’s not usually the case. Driving under the influence causes fatalities, secondhand smoke is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, and a pregnant or breast-feeding woman passes the chemicals in these substances to their fetus or baby, adversely affecting their development.


Stopping any of these behaviors is difficult. It’s much easier never to start.