In a speech this week at the University of Kentucky, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch explained that heroin addicts across the country are more likely to have started out using prescription painkillers than marijuana. While this does not mean that anyone who uses these medications automatically faces the risk of becoming hooked on street drugs, it does highlight the point that just because a substance is legal, it doesn’t mean it’s completely harmless.
Many prescription painkillers contain opioids, which bind to the opiate receptors in the central nervous system in order to reduce feelings of discomfort. When taken in appropriate doses they are generally safe, although people who abuse these chemicals can build up a tolerance to their effects, which can quickly lead to addiction.
According to Lynch, those who develop this sort of problematic prescription drug use often move on to street drugs in their quest to satisfy their increasingly insatiable cravings. “When we talk about heroin addiction, we usually, as we have mentioned, are talking about individuals that started out with a prescription drug problem, and then because they need more and more, they turn to heroin,” she explained.
Yet while some youngsters who experiment with marijuana may also go on to try other illicit substances, on the whole it does not appear to be the case that cannabis necessarily acts as a gateway drug. “In so many cases, it isn't trafficking rings that introduce a person to opioids. It's the household medicine cabinet. That's the source,” Lynch continued.
A growing body of scientific research backs up this claim, with one recent study revealing that more than 50 percent of women being treated for opioid addiction in Ontario, Canada, first came into contact with opioid-based substances via prescription drugs.
Rates of opioid-related overdose deaths are currently spiraling out of control in the US, to the extent that the mortality for white Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 is actually rising, 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.