How Will Marijuana Legalization Impact Heroin Users?

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Marijuana has been illegal in the United States for nearly 80 years, but the times are certainly a-changing as music legend Bob Dylan once sang. Statistics show that marijuana use has been increasing in the United States in recent years. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, respondents who reported using marijuana rose from 6.2 percent in 2002 to 7.3 percent in 2012.

As more states consider decriminalizing marijuana, the impact on heroin users needs to be considered. Socio-economic effects of legalizing marijuana are already evident in Colorado where residents legally were able to purchase marijuana as of Jan. 1, 2014. This summer, Washington will open legal pot shops. And across the United States, about 20 states have approved the use of medical marijuana with numerous other states introducing legislation to make pot available.

No one is sure, but there are fears that legalization will lead to an increase of other drug use, including heroin, in these states. Perhaps state governments will be able to pay more attention and dedicate more resources to educate the public about heroin dangers. Maybe there will be more of an effort to treat addiction than what currently takes place. One thing is for certain. There is a strong financial benefit to decriminalizing marijuana, which is already evident in Colorado. Jobs have been created and the tax revenue from pot sales has added more than $6 million to the state coffers in just a few months.

Some believe decriminalization will lead to less crime. In the book “Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know” the author Beau Kilmer counters those claims. The author says this is not true since most drug-related crime stems from black markets involving heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. With more resources dedicated to heroin education and treatment, states could see a decrease in crime.

While there is little doubt that legalizing marijuana has profound socio-economic benefits, debate rages on about marijuana’s impact as a “gateway” drug. Does marijuana lead to heroin use? For years, those against marijuana use perpetuated that idea. But a 2003 government study, “The Road to Ruin?” concluded that marijuana does not lead to heroin use. Yet many remain steadfast in their belief that legalized pot will lead to an increase in heroin use. Supporters on both sides have compelling arguments and cite a litany of research to state their ardent beliefs. It will take years of research after marijuana is decriminalized across the board before conclusions can be reached about legal pot’s effects on heroin use. Proponents of decriminalization can point to myriad studies that show a decrease in the use of “hard” drugs, such as heroin, in states where medical marijuana is prescribed.

NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, cites numerous studies dating to the 1970s. The consensus discovered in these studies: In states were pot has been decriminalized, use of other drugs did not increase and the absence of marijuana reform actually might have encouraged the use of drugs even more dangerous than marijuana. (http://norml.org/aboutmarijuana/item/marijuana-decriminalization-its-impact-on-use-2).

Various studies indicate there are many who believe the decriminalization of marijuana will have a negligible effect on heroin use. The main reason disputes marijuana’s long-held distinction as a gateway drug. In fact, most marijuana users do not use any other illicit drug, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which is a broad coalition of businessmen, politicians and entertainers who advance drug policies based on “science, compassion, health and human rights.” (www.drugpolicy.org). Another study, cited by the Library of Economics and Liberty website (http://econlog.econlib.org/archives/2014/03/will_legalizing.html) pointed to a 20 percent drop in the number of people being treated for heroin in states when medical marijuana has been made available.

Despite these studies, there is plenty of research, including other studied conducted by the U.S. government that maintains marijuana’s role as a gateway drug. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency casts doubt on research showing legalized marijuana’s effects on heroin use. The DEA points to statistics from The Netherlands, where “coffee shops” have been selling pot legally for years. Despite legalization, heroin addiction levels tripled, the DEA claims, adding that marijuana is not as harmless as some believe.

Another study gives rise to worries about heroin use among pot smokers. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) surveyed 70,000 Americans aged 12 and older about their drug use during 2012. The result showed marijuana and heroin use was on the rise. But increased heroin use also was linked to increases in addiction to opiate-based painkillers.

But because the movement to make marijuana legal, whether for recreational or medical use, remains in its infant stages, the effects on heroin use remain uncertain. Conflicting opinions are based on years’ old research, and while both sides of the legal marijuana argument have plenty of ammunition to debunk the other side’s beliefs, many believe it will be years before solid conclusions can be made in regard to heroin users.