Gateway drugs is a term used frequently by the media and in textbooks. Generally, alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco are described as “gateway” drugs, drugs that can lead to later abuse of other chemicals.
What is the connection between using tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana and later use of other drugs? Some studies from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) indicate that young smokers are 14 times more likely to abuse alcohol than the general population. These smokers are 100 times more likely to use marijuana and 32 times more likely to use cocaine. The spokesperson from Legalize Ohio, naturally, disagrees.
There are probably as many specific reasons as there are young drug users.
* Tobacco or alcohol users may be trying to avoid problems, stress, or boredom. Without coping skills, alcohol may no longer work to make the problems disappear. Try other drugs, and the problem escalates.
* Smoking cigarettes may make a person comfortable with the idea of inhaling smoke. Smoking something else no longer seems dangerous.
* Using alcohol or marijuana seriously impairs judgment and control. Use other drugs? Why not?
Regardless of the legal age for buying alcohol and tobacco, both are fairly easy to obtain – even for grade-school students. Along with marijuana, these drugs could open the gate to heavy drug use and abuse.
This doesn’t mean that anyone who uses crack, cocaine, or other drugs always first uses tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana. Most of the time, though, use of one of the three gateway drugs comes first.
Who Uses Gateway Drugs
Can someone who’s likely to use gateway drugs be picked out of the crowd? Why does that person start in the first place? Why do they continue or move on to hard drugs?
Angie is in ninth grade. She is new to the school and knows no one in town. She doesn’t make friends easily and is lonely. One night, some of the kids from her homeroom ask her over for pizza. Angie is so happy to be included, she fairly floats. When she gets there, she finds that the group has a six-pack of beer. “Try some. One beer can’t hurt you,” they tell her. She doesn’t want to be different. She’s so glad to have finally been asked. And just a little beer can’t hurt. She’s seen her older brother drink beer with his friends. It doesn’t seem to bother them.
Joe is 13. He doesn’t like school. He doesn’t get along with his family. He always seems ready to pick a fight. He takes a few cigarettes from the package his father has left on the table and brings them to school. He meets a few of his friends, and he lights one up. Then he encourages his friends to try a cigarette too.
Chris started smoking several years ago. Now he’s starting his senior year and wants to go to college next year. He’s working hard in school to keep up his grades and at a part-time job to earn money for college. A friend offers him some marijuana. “You’re under a lot of pressure. You need to relax. Try this:’ h is friend says. Chris knows he’s under stress. Maybe a joint would make him feel better.
Of course, these are somewhat exaggerated snapshots of gateway-drug users. But there are times when part of the descriptions might fit. What do they have in common? * They are young; Joe is not even in high school yet. * They have little confidence or self-esteem. * They see tobacco and alcohol used and abused regularly. * They are having trouble dealing with pressures or stress in their lives.
Youth and lack of experience are often reasons for trying gateway drugs. At age 13, Joe has not developed ways to deal with pressures or stress in a healthy way. He is unhappy with school and at home. Smoking may make him feel grownup. He hasn’t had a chance to find other ways to cope with stress.
Angie is also young, lonely, and unsure of herself. She wants to belong, to fit in with the group. And beer seems to be the way to do it. Drinking a beer doesn’t seem like any big deal. Her brother drinks it with no problems. One beer looks like an easy way to finally “belong.” But is drinking a way to fit in? To escape from problems?
Weighing the Consequences
Programs to help prevent drug abuse are being aimed at students younger than ever. The programs attempt to make these young people stop and think about the decisions they make, from smoking a cigarette to watching a movie or going out for the basketball team.
Participants in these programs learn to think about the consequences of their actions. Consequences may be good or bad, but they’re always there. Take a simple everyday decision like going to a movie. There’s a good one you’ve been wanting to see. What about tonight? If there’s no school tomorrow, the good (your enjoyment) outweighs any bad (not having time to do homework). If you have a paper due tomorrow that’s not done yet … well, that’s another story.
The same type of reasoning can be applied by someone in a situation like Angie’s: she must make a choice. What are the consequences?
No eight- or lo-week class can teach answers to all the questions. But the programs start people thinking about actions and consequences. Repeating the message reinforces the ideas.
Thirteen-year-old Joe may start smoking to be “cool.” But he may be primed to start using other drugs. If Joe doesn’t learn to cope, his next step might be alcohol or marijuana.
Problem-solving skills have to be learned, just like any others. As the person gets older and the problems change, the problem-solving skills can be adapted to fit. Using drugs, including alcohol and tobacco, to help deal with stress, boredom, anxiety – or any problem – slams the door to emotional growth. And when that emotional crutch doesn’t work any longer, the next step is a stronger drug.
When people are sure of themselves, of what they are doing, they are much less likely to do something just to go along with the crowd. When they’re sure of something, they go with their convictions.
Maria is very concerned about the environment. She had a major argument in the cafeteria last week with a couple of football players after they walked past the recycling bin and threw their aluminum cans instead in the trash. She thought they were wrong and let them know it. She got them to think about what they were doing. This week they’re recycling.
A few years ago, there was a series of TV ads featuring actress Brooke Shields. In the ads, she said that she hated to be near people who smoked, especially after washing her hair. She took a strong position against smoking, and she wasn’t hesitant to announce it to the world.
Both Maria and Brooke Shields didn’t wait to see what their friends would do or say. Each had thought about the topic, made a decision, and let everyone know.
Self-confidence doesn’t just happen. Skills can be learned to handle these situations and to keep them to a minimum. Many school anti-drug programs also teach ways to promote self-esteem.
Sometimes scenes like those at the beginning of this article are used to start students role-playing. One student might be Angie, while others act as the group. Then the students act out what might happen. If different people play Angie, the entire scene might turn out very differently.
In this way, you have a chance to think about what might happen: what you could, should, and would do in a similar situation. That precise situation may never actually happen. But there will be times when the skills and ideas used will help.
Everybody’s Doing It – NOT
How do you prevent alcohol and tobacco use when both drugs are so common and accessible? Younger students get a mixed message, at best. A parent who smokes may have little luck trying to keep a teen from smoking.
Ads for cigarettes, beer, and other alcoholic beverages are everywhere. TV ads for cigarettes and alcohol (except beer) are no longer run. But billboards and print ads are everywhere. The purpose of an ad is to sell something. Any negative effects are ignored or downplayed.
A junior high or high-school student sees countless ads for cigarettes. The ads, are cleverly designed to attract attention. But the teen who saw the ad is not likely to read an article on the increased risk of cancer and heart disease for smokers. Smoking and drinking seem to be normal activities that are enjoyable.
Blindly accepting what ads say as truth is just another way to follow the crowd: Everybody’s doing it – not.
The gateway drugs, especially tobacco and alcohol, have had the image of respectability. Lately, though, tobacco is being seen for what it is: a dangerous drug. Public sentiment today is, for the most part, anti-smoking. No, this won’t stop the problem, but, yes, it may help keep people from starting.
Alcohol, on the other hand, still is seen as acceptable. But the gate swings open: now on the market are nonalcoholic beer and wine. At first glance, these products may look like a good idea. “Have a nonalcoholic beer with your pizza, and you can drive home without driving under the influence.”
The reality is that nonbeer can be a stepping-stone to teen and preteen drinking. The nonalcoholic drink is legal for all ages. Again, preteens and teens see a pseudobeer or wine substitute as a great idea. Then trying the alcoholic version doesn’t seem like much of a change.
Some of the wine coolers and other premixed drinks on the market give the illusion of being like soda pop or juice. So a cooler is only wine, right? And it’s diluted with juice or with soda. In fact, a 9-ounce wine cooler contains as much alcohol as a can of beer, a glass of wine, or a shot of liquor.
Alcohol is a drug. Because of inexperience and smaller body size, it can cause serious health problems in young people even more quickly than in adults.
Alcohol has other dangers. The drinker has the illusion of being in control long after he or she no longer is. If you have ever tried to convince a person who has been drinking not to drive, you may have seen this effect.
Like it or not, the truth is that smoking and drinking both can kill. The long-term effects may seem just too far away to be worried about. Illness and death just don’t seem real. Then the person who sits next to you in English class dies in an alcohol-related car accident.
Coping with Stress
Are gateway drugs really a quick cure for stress? Most teens today say they feel that they are under tremendous stress. But these drugs don’t make the stress disappear.
The only hide the pressures – for a while. When they return, a cigarette or a beer or a joint just doesn’t help.
So here’s the “gateway.” Step one – the cigarette, the alcohol, or marijuana doesn’t work anymore. Someone suggests moving to step two. Crack, cocaine, uppers, whatever. The cycle has begun.
There are better ways to deal with stress, pressure, or boredom. Sometimes, using role-playing and skits and working with a trained leader (an adult who knows a variety of ways to handle problems) is an answer. No one can solve another person’s problems, but that person can learn new ways – methods and approaches to take that can make the difference. (See “How to Handle Stress” below.)
Gateway drugs can be the starting point for long-term, serious chemical abuse and dependency. Getting started is easy. Stopping is a different story.
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