Stepping Stone Theory of Alcohol and Drugs

According to the stepping stone theory, the use of one substance or drug greatly increases the probability of using another. The next is more dangerous than the first. That process continues with ever more dangerous drugs.

The theory predicts that people who use one substance such as nicotine will probably go on to drink alcoholic beverages. Then smoke marijuana, and progress on to use hard drugs such as cocaine. Each step leads to the next step in substance use.

stepping stone theory

Faulty Logic

The basis for the stepping stone theory is a common observation. It’s 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. Most drug users first had milk and chocolate. But neither milk nor chocolate cause people to become hard drug users.

The stepping stone theory is really a stepping stone hypothesis. And it’s one for which there is a lack of evidence that any such sequence is causal. The public widely believes the theory. But most research scientists don’t. That’s because of the lack of evidence supporting any causal relationship.

Public Policy

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

Probably the most visible and vocal promoter of the stepping stone theory has  been Joe Califano, founder of CASA.  He asserts that “We know that someone who gets to age 21 without smoking, using drugs or abusing alcohol is virtually certain never to do so.”(1)  His solution is both simple and simplistic. Prevent people from smoking, doing drugs, and abusing alcohol until they are 21.

Califano’s idea betrays complete ignorance of logic or reason. As one observer noted, “Perhaps the most reasonable interpretation of his tortured ‘data’ is that some people are much more likely to use drugs than others, a tendency usually expressed during their teen years.”(2) Indeed, research supports this view.

Consider alcohol. Impulsivity, disinhibition, sensation-seeking and other personality traits link to both early onset of drinking and with later heavy drinking. Such early-appearing characteristics can lead to both drinking at an early age and later alcohol problems.

Effective Prediction

That’s why psychologists are able to observe the behavior of pre-school children in play. Then they are able to predict which ones will begin to drink at an early age later become problem drinkers.

But stoping children from drinking at an early age wouldn’t change their personalities. They would still go on to drive their cars too fast, have unprotected sex, or play rough sports. And if we stopped them from engaging in those activities, that wouldn’t make them become alcohol abstainers.

To learn the distinction between the stepping stone and gateway theories visit Gateway and Steppingstone Theories.


Resources on the Stepping Stone Theory (Hypothesis).

Anthony, J.C.  Steppingstone and gateway ideas.  Drug Alc Depend, 2012, 123 (sup. 1), S99-S104.

Barry, A.E., et al. Prioritizing alcohol prevention: establishing alcohol as the gateway drug. J. Sch Health, 2016, 86(1), 31-38.

Bella, K. and Keaneb, H. All gates lead to smoking: The ‘gateway theory’, e-cigarettes and the remaking of nicotine.  Soc Sci Med, 2014, 119, 45-52.

Chu, Y-W. Do medical marijuana laws increase hard-drug use?  J Law Econ., 2015, 58(2),  481-517.

Ginzler J., et al. Sequential progression of substance use among homeless youth.  Subst Use Misuse. 2003, 38(3-6), 725-58.

Kirby, T. and Barry, A.E. Alcohol as a gateway drug.    J School Health, 2012, 82(8),  371’“379.

Sullum, J. High road: marijuana as a “gateway” drug. Reason, Jan 24, 2003

van Ours, J.C. Is cannabis a stepping-stone for cocaine?  J Health Econ, 2003, 22(4), 539-554.

  1. Califano, J.A. The grass roots of teen drug abuse. Wall Street J., Mar 26, 1999.
  2. Honts, M. Letter to Editor. Wall Street J., Mar 31, 1999.