By Stephen Hill, December 2019
I was stuck in active addiction for over a decade. One drug that was constant from the beginning—marijuana. It’s one of the trifecta gateway drugs along with nicotine and alcohol. There is no doubt in my mind that marijuana was a gateway drug for me. My progression matched the following graphic timeline:
I was under the influence of both marijuana and alcohol the first time I tried Xanax at 15-years-old and cocaine at 16-years-old. However, the first time I tried an opioid painkiller at 17-years-old, I was under the influence of marijuana, but not alcohol.
At that point, my brain chemistry from substance abuse had changed, and marijuana definitely contributed to that negative change. My thought processes and decision making skills were dangerous. I no longer needed to be drunk to use drugs such as Xanax, cocaine, or OxyContin.
Today, as a speaker in recovery for over seven years, I always focus on the progression of my addiction when sharing my story. Starting with the first time I picked up a drink and drug at 13-years-old to a felony conviction for possession with intent to distribute at 23-years-old. What seemed like harmless fun at first lead to minor negative consequences that quickly turn into major ones.
But does referring to marijuana as a gateway drug lead some teens to infer that the drug marijuana itself is not harmful? Do some teens think marijuana is harmful only if it leads—is the gateway— to harder drugs?
“I do smoke marijuana, but I’ll never go past that.”- Many Students
The decision to try harder drugs wasn’t the only negative consequence I experienced from using marijuana—I was failing classes, skipping school, lost interest in sports, became very angry when I wasn’t high, drove under the influence, sold drugs, surrounded myself with negative influence and temptation, lost friends, developed a bad reputation, and caused major turmoil within my family. The point to remember: All of these negative consequences occurred BEFORE I moved past the gateway drugs.
It is so important to talk with teens about making a precommitment to their older selves. Unfortunately, the decision I made to start using drugs and alcohol when I was a troubled teenager whose brain was 12 years away from being fully developed would drastically impact my life years later as an adult.
I never planned on becoming a drug addict, no one does. What I didn’t know when I first started at 13-years-old was that the logical and reasonable voice in my head which controlled my substance use (at first) and helped me make smart choices would not be the same voice in the years to come. Eventually, the voice was no longer my own—my addiction had full control over my thoughts and actions.
It’s no easy task explaining to teens who are just starting to use substances that they may start to make increasingly harmful, unhealthy decisions in the near future. It’s so difficult because they have not experienced negative consequences from substance use, and it has not interfered with their ability to prevent themselves from making choices which could have drastic negative consequences—yet.
Then, a switch goes off. It happens sooner for some, later for others, and never for the fortunate ones. When this change occurs, that same teen who was just starting out not too long ago is now thinking with a different brain, a brain that increasingly has less and less ability to make smart, healthy choices. Young people with an addictive personality, are the most vulnerable to this change.
My older brother, a model student in high school, would always say to my parents, “I can’t understand how Steve all of a sudden just started making so many bad decisions.” That is the trouble with thinking about addict behavior from a logical point of view—addiction is a brain disease that knows no logic. Trying to make sense of addiction leads to disconnect, and this disconnect is a big factor contributing to stigma. I have made it my mission to fight stigma by motivating people who have not personally struggled with addiction to continue making smart choices, not become part of the problem, and to be more understanding of those who are struggling with addiction.