Painkillers: The real gateway drug

A simple web search of “what heroin high feels like” will yield forums dedicated to disturbingly mundane threads providing detailed information. On the website HighExistence, a message board user calling himself “Yaboyllamaz” debunks sensationalized myths about heroin highs. After detailing the different effects from variant opioids, he confides the following:

“I had tried Vicodin, Percocet/OxyContin/forms of oxycodone orally and nasally, and codeine/Promethazine syrup before I ever tried heroin, and I didn’t like the effect any of the [prescription drugs] had on me,” he shares.

Such are the beginnings of many a testimony regarding the slippery slope from painkillers to heroin dependency. A study released this past December uncovers three-quarters of high school students nationwide who use heroin first experimented with narcotic painkillers.

Heroin study findings

The study was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence and based on a 2009-2013 Monitoring the Future survey of middle and high schoolers. According to the survey, white students were more likely than minority peers to delve into heroin use after abusing prescription narcotics.

Although a 2015 updated report from Monitoring the Future demonstrated a decline in heroin use among teens, “The improvements this year were almost entirely in taking heroin using a needle—the most dangerous form of use. There was little change in the prevalence of taking heroin without using a needle,” the report states.

A University of Michigan study exposed 10.4 percent of the youth treated in an emergency room admitted to misusing a prescription painkiller or sedative at least once in the last year. Shockingly, more than 85 percent had no narcotic prescription.


Joseph Palamar, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of population health at New York University. He surmises the reason painkillers are an easy gateway is because of partial legality.

“Most other drugs are illegal in all contexts, yet these drugs – the most dangerous drugs – are prescribed by doctors and are often sitting there in parents’ medicine cabinets … If teens don’t believe warnings about street drugs, then why would they be afraid to use government-approved, pharmaceutical-grade pills?”

Palamar believes revamping drug education programs will help teens understand opioids are the wrong drug to experiment with. He adds sensationalized drug education programs put marijuana danger on the same platform as heroin. When a teen discovers that’s not accurate, he says they toss out all other drug information.

“We need to educate our educators, and then we need to start giving more honest and accurate information to our teens … Drug education teachers are sometimes less informed than their students who might have learned from experience or from friends who use,” he said.

If you’ve caught your own teen on Internet forums for drug use, it could be a sign that it’s not too late. Although curious about drug effects, he is still smart enough to do some research. Instead of condemning, use the opportunity to research the “feel good”, bad and ugly side of substance abuse together.

White River Academy is not a place for “bad kids.” Rather, it’s an accredited, therapeutic, structured and family-directed school that encourages inner exploration in lieu of dangerous experimentation. The positive peer culture and varied treatment modalities make our facility pivotal in rearing teenage boys out of addictions and disorders, into healthy maturity. For enrollment details, call our 24/7 helpline.

Written by Kristin Currin.

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