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  • by Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director April 23, 2010

    For decades opponents of marijuana law reform policies have falsely argued that marijuana is a ‘gateway’ to drug abuse — a guilt-by-association charge that implies that because tens of millions of people have used cannabis and a minority of these tens of millions have also tried other drugs that somehow it must have been the pot that triggered the hard drug use.

    But while reformers have been consistent — and accurate — to point out that the so-called ‘gateway theory’ lacks any statistical support (for example, the U.S. government contends that more than four in ten Americans have used cannabis, yet fewer than two percent have ever tried heroin), few in our movement have publicized the fact that for many people cannabis can be a powerful ‘exit drug’ for those looking to curb or cease their use of alcohol, opiates, or narcotics. For instance:

    A 2010 study published in the Harm Reduction Journal demonstrating that cannabis-using adults enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs fared equally or better than nonusers in various outcome categories, including treatment completion.

    A 2009 survey published in the Harm Reduction Journal finding that 40 percent of respondents said used marijuana as a substitute for alcohol, and 26 percent used it to replace their former use of more potent illegal drugs.

    A 2009 study published in the American Journal on Addictions reporting that moderate cannabis use and improved retention in naltrexone treatment among opiate-dependent subjects in a New York state inpatient detoxification program.

    A 2009 preclinical study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology demonstrating that oral THC suppressed sensitivity to opiate dependence and conditioning.

    Based on this and other emerging evidence, investigators at the Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California are now enrolling residents in twelve-step-like classes that use cannabis to quit heroin, pills, cigarettes, alcohol, and other potentially addictive substances.

    Oaklanders Quitting Oxycontin with Cannabis
    via The East Bay Express

    For years, there have been anecdotal reports about people using cannabis to quit harder drugs. The process is called “substitution”, and it’s a tactic that’s beginning to be endorsed by the “harm reduction” philosophy of mental health.

    … So Harborside crafted a program that’s similar to traditional twelve-step programs, but ignores the pot smoking.

    … Janichek is tracking the outcomes of Harborside’s free, cannabis-positive mental health services, with the goal of extrapolating the data into guidelines and replicating the services in other dispensaries.

    It will be interesting to see the results of this program in the coming months — as well as the response (read: outcry) from the traditional drug treatment community.

    One can expect that Harborside’s findings will further undermine the notion that cannabis is an alleged ‘gateway’ to hard drug use, and strengthen the argument that the plant may, in fact, be a useful tool for deterring the initiation or continuation of drug abuse.