In a speech last week at the University of Kentucky the US Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, explained that heroin addicts across the US are more likely to have started out using prescription painkillers rather than marijuana. This does not mean that anyone who uses these medications will automatically face the risk of becoming addicted to street drugs, however, it does highlight the point that just because a substance is legal, it doesn’t make it harmless.
The majority of prescription painkillers contain opioids, which bind to the opiate receptors in the central nervous system in order to reduce feelings of discomfort. These types of prescription painkillers are generally safe when taken in appropriate doses, but those who abuse the chemicals can build up a tolerance to their effects, which can rapidly lead to addiction. According to Lynch, people who develop this sort of problematic prescription drug use often move to street drugs in their quest to satisfy their increasingly insatiable cravings.
While some youngsters who experiment with marijuana may also go on to try other illegal substances, overall it does not appear to be the case that cannabis necessarily acts as a gateway drug. There is actually a growing body of scientific research that backs up this claim, with a recent study revealing that 50% of women being treated for opioid addiction in Ontario, Canada, first came into contact with opioid-based substances through prescription drugs.
In the US rates of opioid-related overdose deaths are currently spiralling out of control, to the point that the mortality rate for white Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 is actually rising. This is in spite of overall improvements in healthcare and general wellbeing. These fatalities are being caused by a combination of street drugs, like heroin, and prescription drugs that contain morphine, oxycodone, and other opioids