Legal Painkillers Are The Real Gateway Drugs, Not Marijuana

Unrecognizable male wearing lab coat and stethoscope holding pills and marijuana, isolated on white background, selective foc
Unrecognizable male wearing lab coat and stethoscope holding pills and marijuana, isolated on white background, selective focus

For the past 80 years we have been taught that the biggest reason cannabis stays illegal, is that it is a "gateway drug", that leads to harder drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, etc.

Last Tuesday, Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke to Kentucky high school students about heroin abuse as a part of Prescription Opioid Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week. Kentucky has been facing a heroin and opioid epidemic that led to the state's introduction of The Heroin Bill, in 2015, which calls for stricter sentences for heroin dealers as well as treatment options for addicts .

Lynch said that prescription drug abuse is the biggest gateway to the use of hard drugs. Whereas, cannabis has proven not to be a main gateway.

"It's the household medicine cabinet, that's the source," Lynch said. "It is true that if you tend to experiment with a lot of things in life, you may be inclined to experiment with drugs, as well. But it's not like we're seeing that marijuana as a specific gateway."

Prescription pills are the new gateway:

Prescription pills, such as hydrocodone, morphine and oxycodone have become highly addictive. These pills work very differently than drugs like marijuana. Prescription pills are legal, easier to find and have different effects. Smoking marijuana creates a "high", feeling of euphoria, versus prescription painkillers that are created to temporarily remove the feeling of pain and sedate the users. When the legal supply is cut off, prescription drug abusers turn to illegal drug markets looking for that same sedation. Even at this point prescription drug abusers skip over marijuana for hard opioids such heroin.

Alcohol is the classic gateway:

Alcohol is the first "drug" most people try and the peer pressure to drink is far greater than any other substance. While we have seen the research on the damages of alcohol abuse, we barely link alcoholism with any other kind of substance abuse. Many people addicted to drugs often start with excessive alcohol use. This also links to opioid overdose problem that frequently also involves dangerous drug combinations, mixing heroin and painkillers with alcohol.

Changing Drug Education:

The problem is the stigma that cannabis is bad because it's illegal, and it is illegal because it is bad. Drug programs for children, such as D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) teaches that cannabis, heroin and cocaine fall into one category, "bad drugs". Prescription and over the counter pills fall into another category, "good drugs". This blanket way of identifying and mislabeling drugs has done us disservice. We assume that a "good" drug, such as prescription pills, can be consumed without any side effects, but turn out to be more damaging.

What we really need to do is teach people that a drug, is any substance that can alter the mind and/or body, rather than simplistic labels as "good" or "bad". We need to indicate that both legal and illegal drugs have individual effects that should be objectively studied. Only then, can we start a dialogue how to safely and responsibly consume them without abuse.