Stepping Stone Theory

According to the stepping stone theory, the use of one substance or drug increases the probability of consuming another, possibly more harmful, drug later and that the probability increases with frequency of use. It predicts that people who use one substance such as nicotine will probably go on to drink alcoholic beverages, smoke marijuana, and progress on to use hard drugs such as cocaine. Each step is seen as leading to the next step in substance use.

The basis for the stepping stone theory is the common finding that hard drug users have usually started with substances such as tobacco and alcohol. However, the vast majority of smokers or alcohol consumers fail to progress on to hard drugs. It could be argued that milk or chocolate are stepping stones toward hard drug use because most drug users first consumed milk and chocolate. However, neither milk nor chocolate cause people to become hard drug users.

The stepping stone theory is really a stepping stone hypothesis, for which there is a lack of evidence that any such sequence is causal. Although it might be widely accepted by the public, it has lost credibility and support among research scientists because of the lack of evidence supporting any causality.

In spite of the lack of evidence supporting it, the stepping stone theory is the basis of much public policy regarding alcohol. Unfortunately, a policy based on a false assumption is likely to be ineffective or even counterproductive.


Resources on the Stepping Stone Theory or Hypothesis:

  • Alcoholism Section, Washington (State) Division of Health. Teenage Drinking: A Stepping Stone to other Drug Usage. Olympia, WA: Alcoholism Section, Washington (State) Division of Health, 1971.
  • Baumrind, D. Specious causal attributions in the social sciences: the reformulated stepping-stone theory of heroin use an as exemplar. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1983, 45(6), 1289-1298.
  • Bretteville, Anne, et al. Sequential patterns of drug use initiation - Can we believe in the gateway theory? OCLC Number 295516119. (Explores stepping stone theory.)
  • Cohen, H. Multiple drug use considered in the light of the stepping-stone hypothesis. International Journal of the Addictions, 1972, 7(1), 27-55.
  • Greene,B.T. Sequential use of drugs and alcohol: a reexamination of the stepping-stone hypothesis. American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 1980, 7(1), 83-99.
  • Grinspoon, Lester. Marihuana Reconsidered. Oakland, CA: Quick American Archives, 1994. (Includes chapter on stepping stone hypothesis.)
  • LaChance, Laurie L. Alcohol, Drugs and Adolescents. Ann Arbor, MI: ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Personnel Services. (Examines evidence regarding stepping stone theory.)
  • McEvoy, William C. Marijuana Usage and the Gateway Hypothesis: A Stepping Stone, a Causal Link to other Drugs, or Both? Thesis. Curry College, 2007.
  • Marijuana. ("What's Your Poison" series). DVD video. Eight Mile Plains, Queensland: Marcom Projects, 2005. (Considers whether marijuana use is a "stepping stone" to other drugs.")
  • Nace, E.P., et al. Addicted and nonaddicted drug users. A comparison of drug usage patterns. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1975, 32(1), 77-80. (" A ‘stepping-stone hypothesis' of heroin addiction is refuted.")
  • Salmon, R., and Salmon, S. The cause of heroin addiction -- a review of the literature, Part II. International Journal of the Addictions, 1977, 12(7), 937-951. (Reviews research literature on stepping stone theory.)
  • van Ours, J.C. Is cannabis a stepping-stone for cocaine? Journal of Health Economics, 2003, 22(4), 539-554.
  • Wagner, F.A., and Anthony, J.C. Into the world of illegal drug use: exposure opportunity and other mechanisms linking the use of alcohol, tobacco, marihuana, and cocaine. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2002, 155(10), 918-925. (Examines stepping-stone/gateway sequences.)
  • Welte, John W., and Barnes, Grace. Alcohol: the gateway to other drug use among secondary-school students. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 1985, 14(6), 487-498.

Fact: Steppingstone Theory is also the name of a musical band.

Filed Under: Abuse

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