As alcohol is known to be addictive, there have been a few studies on how this legal substance interacts with illicit drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine. While statistics have been collected though, the conclusions are still conflicting and there is obviously much work to be done in the field. Nevertheless, some of this information has been used to create new drug policies in the government when it comes to curbing the use of both alcohol among youths and illicit substance abuse among the general population.
The common government stance within the US is that alcohol is a gateway drug. This means that a user first starts drinking and then moves on to harder substances, such as cannabis and heroin, later on in life. This is a fairly recent theory and the following pathways have been hypothesized:
* Alcoholics are more likely to try other substances due to their personality.
* Alcohol alters the brain, leading to a higher chance of addiction to other drugs.
* There is a clear progression pathway leading from alcohol to other substances.
Most of the data used to back up these gateway theories comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) within the US. These statistics have then been compiled in several reports, such as the National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the US Department of Health and Human Services as well as the US Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
The following figures were gathered from the NIDA data and were found within the above studies:
* In 2009, 69.9% of heavy alcohol users among those aged 12 to 17 were illicit drug users. This was over 13 times higher than non-alcohol users where 5.2% used illegal substances.
* In a 1996 study, those who started drinking before 15 were 101 times more likely to use cocaine than someone who abstained from alcohol.
As well as this, in 1999 a review was done of the Adult Drug Court Program in Las Vegas, Nevada. Here, it was found that 27% of those who used harder drugs, such as cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin, started off by using alcohol. In addition to this, 29% of these individuals began by using alcohol and marijuana together and then later on moved to harder substances.
While these statistics may seem convincing, there has been very little evidence that points to a direct correlation between alcohol use and the use of more illicit drugs later on in life. As with a lot of statistics, correlation does not necessarily imply causation, and more work needs to be done here in order to find out whether the gateway theory is actually correct or not. The following alternative theories have been postulated as to why such a large majority of drug users started out with alcohol:
* Drugs such as alcohol are available at an earlier age than substances, such as heroin and cocaine. This progression is therefore as a result of the individual’s desire to try something new rather than as a direct effect of the alcohol itself.
* The criminalization of drugs such as cannabis exposes individuals to dealers who sell harder substances. Thus it is the black market itself which leads to more harmful substance abuse.
In 2008, the US Department of Justice released a report entitled Co-occurrence of Substance Use Behaviors in Youth within their Juvenile Justice Bulletin. This investigated how alcohol and marijuana use overlapped within different groups, categorized into ages, sexes and ethnicities. The important statistics are listed below:
| Group | Alcohol Users | Marijuana Users | Alcohol and Marijuana Users |
| Youth Aged 12 – 17 | 23% | 9% | 7% |
| Youth Aged 12 – 14 | 11% | 4% | 3% |
| Youth Aged 15 – 17 | 35% | 14 % | 12% |
| Males Aged 12 – 17 | 23% | 10% | 8% |
| Females Aged 12 – 17 | 23% | 9% | 7% |
The study also found that 32% of those who drank alcohol between the ages of 12 and 17 used marijuana as well. This was a significant increase from those who did not drink alcohol where only 2% used cannabis. Conversely, a staggering 81% of those who smoked marijuana drank as well, while only 17% of non-cannabis users consumed alcohol. Obviously, there is a link between the two drugs, although the study did not go on to explain why these two substances were so often used together.
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