A gateway drug is one that attracts first time users, and introduces them into the culture of substance abuse. These drugs are usually viewed as “safe” by the user, but eventually lead to more serious drug problems as inhibitions are lowered, and addiction sets in. The fastest rising, and increasingly common gateway drugs among young people today are prescription painkillers. They produce a strong high, can be found in almost any medicine cabinet, and come with the false sense of harmlessness because they came from a doctor. They are highly addictive, however, and studies have shown that prescription painkiller abuse is leading to a huge surge in heroin addiction.
Making the Switch
Prescription painkillers like Oxycontin and Percocet are opioids, derived from the same chemical composition as heroin. These types of drugs are just as addictive as their illicit counterparts, and carry equally harmful side effects. The main difference between these types of painkillers and heroin is that they come in a very limited dose, and are monitored by a physician. When these drugs are abused, they become just as harmful as illegal drugs. When the effects of the limited doses of prescription drugs begin to lessen due to tolerance, the more potent effects of heroin begin to look like a solution for those who are struggling with an addiction to prescription opioids.
Availability and Affordability
One of the most recognizable signs of addiction is a sense of urgency about obtaining your drug of choice. An addiction to prescription medications can only go on for so long before you’ve depleted your medicine cabinet supply, and outgrown your prescription allotments. Prescription medications can be difficult to obtain at a certain point, when family members and friends’ supplies have been depleted, and your doctor isn’t prescribing any more.
Heroin, on the other hand, can be found in a steady supply on the streets of any big city, at any time of the day, and a little bit goes a long way. This is what sends people who never thought they would use a heavy street drug in search of a dealer. At a fraction of the cost of prescription painkillers, heroin begins to look like a great solution to the supply and demand problem, which is why the instances of death by heroin overdose have more than doubled in the past decade.
A Rapid Downward Spiral
A person is taking a big leap when they move from the limited dosing and availability of prescription opioids out into the big wide world of heroin. Heroin is a purer form of opioids, and packs a bigger punch in terms of a high. This also means that it carries heavier side effects, and opioid addicts who switch to heroin use will see their health rapidly decline.
Heroin also requires users to become comfortable with more unsavory dosage administration, leaving behind the pill popping for snorting or injecting. The slow descent through prescription medication addiction to the point where the switch to heroin is made is quickly intensified by heroin use, and the downward spiral speeds up exponentially.
Addressing prescription medication addiction early, and educating people about the dangers of opioid abuse in any form is the only way to decrease the skyrocketing number of deaths by heroin overdose.
Kris is a Advanced Substance Use Disorder Counselor and has been working in the field of substance abuse since 1996. Kris is the Program Director for Renaissance Ranch. Kris’s passion for and commitment to assisting people in their healing and recovery is a great joy for her.