Gateway and Stepping-stone Substances: What are They?

In this interview with Dr. Andrew Golub, he describes and explains the popular but controversial theories of gateway and stepping-stone substances. He’s interviewed by your host, David Hanson.

Hanson–

Dr. Golub, could you explain the similarities and differences between the popular theories about gateway and stepping-stone substances?

Dr. Golub–

The idea that one behavior leads to another is an old one going back hundreds of years. The stepping-stone and gateway theories each suggest something slightly different. Both are about the nature of substance use progression. There is a theory that youths typically start substance use with alcohol and tobacco which are widely used by adults. Some of these people progress to marijuana use. In turn, some marijuana users progress to hard drugs. The two different metaphors have different suggestions about the certainty of the progression.

gateway and stepping-stone substancesThe stepping-stone metaphor brings to mind stones leading across a stream. It suggests that once a person takes the first step, crossing the water to the other side is inevitable. Presumably the opposite bank represents hard drug use, hard drug abuse, and all the resulting problems.. Thus, a youth who has had a taste of alcohol or tobacco is destined to smoke marijuana. Then go on to hard drugs such as cocaine, crack, heroin and LSD.

In contrast, the gateway metahor suggets a series of gates leasing into successive pastures. A perspn can pass through one gate and spend time in the first field. It represents alcohol and tobacco use. Perhaps the person never goes through other gates leading to marijuana and hard drug use. Of course, passing through each gate exposes the person to new risks.

Stepping-stone Theory

Hanson–

So the Stepping-stone theory suggests that the progression to more dangerous substances is certain. That is, unless the user gives up all the substances (stepping- stones) and returns to the safe side (abstinence)?

Dr. Golub–

You got it. Many advocates have adopted this metaphor as if it were true. Thus, they strongly call for total abstinence and zero tolerance of any youthful substance use. Indeed, official U.S. policy demands zero tolerance of under age alcohol and tobacco use.

Hanson–

The gateway theory seems to be less extreme than the steppingstone. It’s obvious that using one substance doesn’t inevitably lead to hard drug use and abuse.

Dr. Golub–

That’s right. If you stick to a very literal interpretation of the two metaphors.

Hanson–

Could those who have entered the “hard drug use field” return to the “marijuana field,” never to go back to hard drugs like cocaine?

Dr. Golub–

Yes. A federal program interviews high school seniors every year. It finds that people cut back and even quit using various substances toward the end of young adulthood.

Evidence?

Hanson–

Are these theories of gateway and stepping-stone substances supported by evidence in the real world?

Dr. Golub–

At the superficial level, yes. There is much evidence that people begin using alcohol and tobacco sooner than marijuana. And marijuana before using and hard drugs. However, the evidence is clearly inconsistent with the rigid progression implied by the stepping-stone metaphor. In fact, some studies even find many hard drug users did not follow the gateway sequence.

Also visit Underage Drinking

I studied substance use progression of mostly crack abusers from inner-city New York. These users were just as likely to have started with marijuana as alcohol. Also, those users born more recently were even more likely to have started with marijuana. At least three other studies have also found that many hard drug users had not followed the gateway sequence. So this much is clear. Entering one stage does not necessarily lead to any later stage.

Personally, my preferred metaphor is one that is widely used in psychology. It’s the markers metaphor. I suggest that use of alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana serve as “markers” of those youths who are at increased risk of hard drug use. The image here is that of a network of roadways. Along one path is the typical “gateway” sequence to hard drugs. But there are other paths leading to hard drugs. Most importantly, there are many paths involving adolescent substance use leading to otherwise fine outcomes.

Hanson–

So the popular idea that preventing people from using the first gateway substance is faulty. That’s because it wouldn’t prevent them from using illegal drugs?

Dr. Golub–

That’s right.

Hanson–

Does the gateway theory tell us who will pass through one gateway and who won’t?

Dr. Golub–

There is much theory about this. However, it is important to remember that the association here is statistical. That is, progression is not automatic.

There are three things that affect a person’s reaction. These are the substance used, the person’s mind set, and the social setting in which use occurs. All three of these are important. So it’s a gross oversimplification to suggest that use of one substance inevitably leads to another. The progression of which substances a person uses clearly occurs within a cultural context. Importantly, a persons’s progression or not is affected by their place in that culture as well as personal factors.

Hanson–

Your approach seems to be realistic and based on the actual behavior of people, doesn’t it?

Dr. Golub–

Thank you.

Why So Popular?

Hanson–

Given the obvious inadequacies of the stepping-stone and gateway theories, why are they so popular?

Dr. Golub–

I suspect there are a variety of reasons. Some are rational, some are institutional, and some are political.

It’s convenient to reduce reduce complicated research findings to a simple metaphor. Convenient, but not always correct. The gateway and stepping stone metaphors are particularly compelling. That’s because, if they were true, they provide a clear rationale for early substance abuse prevention. Obviously, this is a problem of great concern. The true solution to this problem is probably much more complicated. That’s true of most problems of human behavior and our social condition.

Institutionally, there are many agencies dedicated to preventing adolescent substance use. Using the gateway theory provides a useful justification for larger budgets, increased staff, and job security.

Politicly, there are interest groups that are increasingly intolerant of people taking individual risks. These groups are concern themselves with a wide range of behaviors. For example,  vehicle air bags,  child seats in cars, second-hand smoke, and adolescent substance use. Supporting a theory, like the gateway theory, helps propel their concerns to the forefront.

Hanson–

You mentioned zero tolerance earlier. How effective is this approach to the problem?

Dr. Golub–

I suspect that even if you could keep youths from using alcohol and tobacco, this would not reduce substance abuse. I say “could” because our nation has been engaging in a “war against drugs” for decades. Yet most youths experiment with both before reaching the age of 21. So, I seriously question whether all youthful substance use could ever be prevented.

Moreover, by energetically opposing all use we might actually be promoting abuse. You [David Hanson] have written extensively on the cultural theory of alcohol use. This theory suggests that learning how to drink from responsible drinkers is the best way to reduce alcohol problems. In fact, cross-cultural comparisons show that groups intolerant of alcohol use have more alcohol-related problems. I suspect that there is much merit to this theory.

Your Recommendation?

Hanson–

You’ve studied this subject for many years. Based on your expertise, what public or educational policy would you recommend to reduce substance abuse?

Dr. Golub–

I am not happy with the increasing intolerance of youthful substance use. I think that we are prematurely branding youths as criminals. We should be reaching out to help them with their problems. On the other hand, I do not recommend any dramatic changes at this time. For example, lowering the drinking age. Dramatic social changes can be very disruptive and lead to unintended consequences.

I would recommend a policy similar to what has prevailed in the last 30 years and that is grudging tolerance. This would result in an official policy which in effect says we do not condone your substance use. However, if you ever need help in thinking through your problems, we’re here for you. Such a policy would allow educators and other professionals to work with youths and to help them. The way current policies are moving, a youth would need to pledge abstinence to get help.Otherwise, they risk criminal penalties.

Hanson–

Thank you very much, Dr. Golub, discussing theories of gateway and tepping-stone substances.

Dr. Golub–

Thank you.

 

Gateway and Steppingstone SubstancesDr. Andrew Golub is an expert on theories of  gateway and stepping-stone substances. He received his Ph.D. in Public Policy Analysis from Carnegie Mellon University. He is a Principal Investigator at the National Development and Research Institutes headquartered in New York City. His research focuses on advancing our understanding of the nature of substance use and abuse. He does through statistical analyses in order to develop effective and cost-effective public policies. Golub is author of the books The Cultural/Subcultural Contexts of Marijuana Use and also Decision Analysis.

Resources on Gateway and Stepping-stone Substances

Golub, A. Sociocultural Factors and Addiction. In Shaffer, H. et al. (Eds) Addiction Syndrome Handbook, Washington: Am Psy Assn, 2012.

Golub, A., et al. Beyond America’s war on drugs. AIMS Pub Health, 2015, 2(1), 142-160.

______. Opioid-involved overdose. Sub Use Misuse, 2017, 52(3), 1-11.

______. Opioid use, initiation, progression, and motivations. Mil Behav Health, 2018, 6(1).

Golub, A. and Johnson, B. Sociocultural Issues. In Lowenson, J. (Ed) Substance Abuse. London: Lippencott, 2005.

______. Substance Use Progression and Hard Drug Abuse. In: Kandel, D. (Ed.) Stages and Pathways of Involvement in Drug Use: Examining the Gateway Hypothesis. J Drug Iss, 1998, 28(4), 971-984.

For more publications by Dr. Golub on gateway and stepping-stone substances, visit Research Gate.