As a medical cannabis patient, you may have a friend or family member who cautions that your prescription could be a ‘slippery slope’ that will end in illegal and harmful drug abuse. When it comes to medical marijuana health risks, is this true?
Let’s explore where this myth came from and precisely what the research says. In this article, we’ll dive into the history of the Slippery Slope argument to better understand your loved one’s concerns, and we’ll help you dispel their fears with facts.
Myth: Medical Cannabis Increases the Risk of Other Drug Use
In 2009, when Western Australia’s Premier, Colin Barnett, was attempting to introduce some of the strictest legislation on cannabis the country has seen, he said, “Cannabis is not a harmless or soft drug. Research continues to show that cannabis can lead to a host of health and mental health problems, including schizophrenia, and can be a gateway to harder drugs.”
This ‘gateway drug’ message has been rolled out repeatedly by anti-cannabis organisations, politicians, and individuals despite being outdated and unproven.
The theory largely stems from a study conducted in the 1970s; it was popularised through the 1980s when anti-drug activist Robert DuPont used it in his anti-marijuana rhetoric.
Even back then, this interpretation of the study was called into question and hotly debated. Today, it has been all but entirely disproven by recent, more reliable studies.
Busted: Medical Cannabis Does Not Lead to Increase Use of Other Drugs
In a recent article published by the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, it was stated, “Using one drug doesn’t necessarily lead people to trying other drugs. Research dismisses concerns about so-called 'gateway drugs'. There is no evidence suggesting people who use cannabis will ‘graduate’ over time to other drugs such as heroin or amphetamines.”
This statement cites a study published in 2014 that looked at five main risk factors: family factors, peer pressure, gateway drugs, individual characteristics, and community factors.
The study found that family was the most crucial risk factor for drug abuse among youth. It concluded that the stronger family cohesion and parental monitoring are, the less probable drug abuse will be. When it came to the gateway effect, there was no agreement and recognition that this is simply a cultural myth.
A more recent study published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse in the U.S. supports this conclusion. The authors explicitly state that “most people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.” Again, unstable social and family environments are the more substantial risk factors.
A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. came to a similar conclusion: "There is limited evidence suggesting that using marijuana increases the risk of using other drugs.”
Recent cannabis research consistently disproves that cannabis use leads to abusing illegal and harmful drugs like heroin or amphetamines.
Medical Cannabis May Decrease Reliance on Opioids
Not only has the gateway theory around cannabis use been disproven, but some research shows that medical cannabis may decrease reliance on opioids, prescription drugs that 80 per cent of heroin users reported using before heroin.
While opioids have their place in for some treatment plans, chronic use can often lead to unwanted side effects, a lack of efficacy and at times, may even modify the pain pathways to make them permanently more sensitive to pain. This increased sensitivity is referred to as hyperalgesia and it can become debilitating in its own right. Opioids are also physically addictive, they can cause severe withdrawal symptoms when stopped abruptly, and this can lead to ongoing escalation of dosing, tolerance and addiction.
For this reason, medical cannabis may be a safe option for patients experiencing chronic pain because it may allow a patient to reduce their overall opioid doses while still managing their pain, and it does not have the same 'slippery slope' effect.
A study published in the Australian Journal of General Practice showed that extended use of cannabis-based medicines does not lead to hyperalgesia and that the pain-relieving effect of cannabis can be retained long-term, even when tolerance has developed.
Perhaps the most telling statement comes from a study published in Nursing Outlook in 2018, which concludes that a review of the current literature suggests that medical cannabis policies could “reduce prescription opioid medication-associated mortality, improve pain management, and significantly reduce health care costs.”