Stepping Stone Theory of Alcohol and Drugs (What Is It?)

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

I. Stepping Stone Theory

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

Faulty Logic

stepping stone theorylThe 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. But most smokers or alcohol consumers fail to progress to hard drugs.

We could argue 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. Moreover, 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.

Public Policy

In spite of the lack of evidence, the stepping stone theory is the basis of much public policy. But a policy based on a false assumption is likely to be ineffective. It may even be counter productive. That is, worse than doing nothing.

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 simplistic. Prevent people from smoking, doing drugs, and abusing alcohol until they are 21.

II. Theory Not Supported

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. They link both early onset of drinking and with later heavy drinking. That is, such early-appearing factors 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 sky dive. And if we stopped them from engaging in those activities, that wouldn’t make them become alcohol abstainers.

Want to know the distinction between the stepping stone and gateway theories ? Visit Gateway and Steppingstone Theories.

III. Resources on the Stepping Stone Theory (Hypothesis)


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

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

Bella, K. and Keaneb, H. All gates lead to smoking. The “gateway theory.” Soc Sci Med, 119, 45-52.

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

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

Kirby, T. and Barry, A. Alcohol as a gateway drug. J School Health, 82(8),  371-9.

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

van Ours, J. Is cannabis a stepping-stone for cocaine?  J Health Econ, 22(4), 539-54.

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