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How likely is trying a substance to lead to further use?
Debunking the Gateway Theory & Other Myths
A look at correlative statistics
by Erowid
Created October 2002, Edited Sep 2004 : 3.0
The "Gateway Theory" is a theory that the use of cannabis naturally leads to the use of heroin, cocaine, or other "hard drugs". This theory is often used to explain why cannabis use must remain criminal, despite cannabis use itself being less physically dangerous than many legal activities. Although the Gateway Theory has been repeatedly debunked and discredited by reviews funded by the White House, the Parliament of Britain, and the government of Canada, it continues to be used as an argument in both educational materials and political decisions.

Based on the data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), formerly named the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, by SAMSHA, the percentage of those who have ever tried marijuana and then ended up using heroin once per month is around 1 in 1000. To explain this further, since the estimated number of monthly heroin users in the United Status in 2001 is 100,000, that is the maximum number of people who can have gone on to use heroin regularly after trying cannabis. Since there are an estimated 83 million people in the US who have ever tried cannabis, this works out to 0.12% (100,000 / 83,300,000).

The chart below also helps show the correlation between those who ever try a substance and then go on to ever use it at least once a month. Of the psychoactive drugs included in this survey, trying PCP was the least likely to lead to ever using it monthly (0.8%), the next least likely to lead to any monthly use was LSD (1.5%), next were inhalants (2.7%), then heroin (3.2%), then barbiturates (4.1%).


2003 Data
Percent of people who ever used a drug and then kept using the drug at least once a month
(Data from 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, SAMHSA)
drug used ever
(millions)
used 1X/month
(millions)
use ranking   ever used
and kept using
1X/month
ever used
but NOT using
1X/month
single use
MOST likely
to lead to
regular use
Single Use
Least Likely
to lead to
regular use
alcohol 197.5 119.0 1 60.3% 39.7% 1
cigarettes 163.2 60.4 2 37.0% 63.0% 2
marijuana 96.6 14.6 3 15.1% 84.9% 3a
cocaine (all) 34.9 2.3 4 6.6% 93.4% 6
hallucinogens (all) 34.4 1.0 5 2.9% 97.1% 12
pill opioids 31.2 4.7 6 15.1% 84.9% 3b
hallucinogen: LSD 24.4 0.1 7 0.5% 99.5% 15 1
inhalants 23.0 0.6 8 2.6% 97.4% 13 3
stimulants (all) 20.8 1.2 9 5.8% 94.2% 7
benzodiazepines 20.2 1.8 10 8.9% 91.1% 4
stimulant: meth 12.3 0.6 11 4.9% 95.1% 8
hallucinogen: MDMA 10.9 0.5 12 4.3% 95.7% 10
barbiturates 9.5 0.3 13 3.2% 96.8% 11 4
cocaine: crack 7.9 0.6 14 7.6% 92.4% 5
hallucinogen: PCP 7.1 0.1 15 0.8% 99.2% 14 2
heroin 3.7 0.2 16 4.6% 95.4% 9



2002 Data
Percent of people who ever used a drug and then kept using the drug at least once a month
(Data from 2002 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, SAMHSA)
drug used ever
(millions)
used 1X/month
(millions)
use ranking   ever used
and kept using
1X/month
ever used
but NOT using
1X/month
single use
MOST likely
to lead to
regular use
Single Use
Least Likely
to lead to
regular use
alcohol 195.5 119.8 1 61.3% 38.7% 1
cigarettes 162.6 61.1 2 37.6% 62.4% 2
marijuana 95.0 14.6 3 15.4% 84.6% 3
hallucinogens (all) 34.3 1.2 4 3.5% 96.5% 12
cocaine (all) 33.9 2.0 5 5.9% 94.1% 7
pill opioids 29.6 4.4 6 14.9% 85.1% 4
hallucinogen: LSD 24.5 0.1 7 0.4% 99.6% 15 1
inhalants 22.9 0.6 8 2.6% 97.4% 13 3
stimulants (all) 21.1 1.2 9 5.7% 94.3% 8
benzodiazepines 19.3 1.8 10 9.3% 90.7% 5
stimulant: meth 12.4 0.6 11 4.8% 95.2% 9
barbiturates 10.0 0.4 12 4.0% 96.0% 11 4
cocaine: crack 8.4 0.6 13 7.1% 92.9% 6
hallucinogen: PCP 7.4 0.06 14 0.8% 99.2% 14 2
heroin 3.7 0.17 15 4.6% 95.4% 10 5


2001 Data
Percent of people who ever used a drug and then kept using the drug at least once a month
(Data from 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, SAMHSA)
drug used ever
(millions)
used 1X/month
(millions)
use ranking   ever used
and kept using
1X/month
ever used
but NOT using
1X/month
single use
MOST likely
to lead to
regular use
Single Use
Least Likely
to lead to
regular use
alcohol184.4109159.1%40.9%1
cigarettes151.656.2237.1%62.9%2
marijuana83.312.1314.5%85.5%4
hallucinogens (all)28.31.344.6%95.4%9
cocaine (all)27.81.756.1%93.9%8
pill opioids22.13.5615.8%84.2%3
hallucinogen: LSD20.20.371.5%98.5%132
inhalants18.20.582.7%97.3%123
stimulants (all)16.0196.3%93.8%7a
benzodiazepines13.91.41010.1%89.9%5
stimulant: meth9.60.6116.3%93.8%7b
barbiturates7.40.3124.1%95.9%105
cocaine: crack6.20.4136.5%93.5%6
hallucinogen: PCP6.00.05140.8%99.2%141
heroin3.10.1153.2%96.8%114