Dear Pot Lawyer,
What do people mean when they talk about cannabis as an “exit drug”?
This question may seem to fall outside the legal realm, but continued cannabis research is critical towards undercutting the fallacies that are still propping up prohibition. The case against legalization is based in part on claims that cannabis is as dangerous as other Schedule I drugs (heroin, LSD, ecstasy, etc.) and you’ve probably heard at some point—maybe during high school health class—that cannabis is a “gateway drug” that leads to other dangerous drugs.
Of course, we now know that the first premise is false: Cannabis use is safer in the long run than even alcohol and tobacco, let alone some Schedule II drugs like meth. Most prohibitionists even recognize this fact, and instead focus on the alleged tendency of cannabis to lead to legitimately dangerous substances.
However, recent studies have started to demolish this idea of pot as a gateway drug. A 2014 study found that legal medical cannabis dispensaries reduce opioid abuse and overdoses. Another recent study, from April, found that this substitution effect goes beyond the opioid crisis, and medical cannabis users reported significant reductions in the use of various drugs: opioids (76.7 percent of users), anti-anxiety medications (71.8 percent), migraine medications (66.7 percent), sleep medications (65.2 percent), alcohol (42 percent), and antidepressants (37.6 percent).
But a paper from 2016 really dug into the question of whether cannabis is a gateway drug to more dangerous things, or is actually an “exit drug” that helps users transition away from more damaging substances. An international team led by researchers from the University of British Columbia performed a comprehensive review of all studies on medical and non-medical cannabis use and mental health. In a nice understatement, the lead author was quoted as saying, “In reviewing the limited evidence on medical cannabis, it appears that patients and others who have advocated for cannabis as a tool for harm reduction and mental health have some valid points.” The study itself found that “evidence suggests that [cannabis for therapeutic] use does not increase risk of harm or others” and cannabis has potential for the treatment of a variety of substance use disorders and even PTSD.
Of course, more research into the potential of cannabis as an exit drug is needed. The paper states: “In contrast to the proposition that cannabis may serve as a gateway [drug] is an emerging stream of research which suggests that cannabis may serve as an ‘exit drug,’ with the potential to facilitate reductions in the use of other substances.” The paper identified a few studies supporting the exit drug theory, but notes that the science is far from certain. However, all signs seem to point toward an emerging understanding of cannabis as an effective tool to treat more dangerous substance abuse issues.