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Indiana Prevention Resource Center (IPRC)

Inhalants as a Gateway Drug

Discussion of any substance as a gateway drug must first be contextualized with a sense of what is meant by the term “gateway drug.” While different publications use slightly variant definitions to flesh out the idea, the Wikipedia definition is remarkably consistent with the concepts used in peer-reviewed literature and is presented in lay terminology, making the concepts easily accessible: “The term gateway drug is used to describe a drug that can lead to the use of a ‘harder’ or more dangerous drug. The term is also used to describe introductory experiences to ‘addictive’ substances” (Wikipedia, 2007). It is commonly accepted based on age of onset and sequence of use for a variety of drugs that alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana are gateway drugs.

With this concept in mind, we can begin to examine inhalants: “Because of their low cost, ease of concealment, and (for many inhalants) lack of legislative control over possession and purchase, inhalants may, for many, be the first psychoactive substance used” (Dinwiddie, 1994). Furthermore, among diagnosed drug abusers, inhalant abuse occurred at a mean age of 14.4, which is slightly over half a year before they started using marijuana (Walker, 2004). These data provide the basis for a hypothesis that inhalants are a gateway drug. The ease with which adolescents can access inhalants might predispose them to abusing the drug either before illicit substances or in lieu of them. This hypothesis has not been supported by research, but is consistent with patterns of gateway use reported in the literature. Further research is required to better understand the role of inhalants in the onset of drug use and as a precursor to other illicit drug use.

Gassman, R., Jun, M.K., Samuel, S., Martin, E.V., McCarthy-Jean, J.A., Lee, J., Kim, N., Konchada, S., Kondapuram, S.P., Morrison, A., Nautiyal, V., Pardue, N., Rayaprolu, S., Roby, R., Wang, T., and Zhou, B. (2006). Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Use by Indiana Children and Adolescents: The Indiana Prevention Resource Center Survey – 2006 (IDAP Monograph No. 06-01). Bloomington, IN: Indiana Prevention Resource Center.
Walker, Denise D., Venner, K., Hill, D.E., Meyers, R.J., Miller, W.R. (2004). A comparison of alcohol and drug disorder: Is there evidence for a developmental sequence of drug abuse? Addictive Behaviors, 29, 817-823.
Wikipedia (2007). Gateway drug. Retrieved online on 5/11/07 from: http://en.wikipedia.org.

This graph demonstrates that while the illicit drugs heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine are increasingly used by adolescents through the 12th grade, inhalant use increases up until grade eight, and then drops off. This graph suggests that inhalant use may be an antecedent to “harder” drugs, and thus be a gateway drug.

by Sarah J. Stephens, 6/20/2007