Maryland Sheriff Cites Marijuana as Beginning a Path to Overdose For Many

March 16, 2017

In Maryland, a recent poll showed that 58% of Marylanders are in favor of legalizing marijuana. Would they feel that way if they realized how many local people who started with marijuana ended up needing to be saved from deadly overdoses?

In ABC News coverage of the drug problem in Maryland, Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler commented that the majority of local people who survived an overdose started with pot. According to Gahler, out of 165 overdoses, “Seventy-eight percent indicated that they used marijuana at a young age as beginning their path to drugs.”

A young man holds a fresh joint.

Legalizing marijuana can look like a good idea until you talk to people who used this drug as their first step toward addiction. A father featured in this news report agrees. When he was young, he thought he wasn’t hurting anyone by smoking a few joints. Then he realized how much damage was occurring in his life as a result of drugs.

He finally got sober and began coaching young men struggling with addiction. His dedication to this cause did not enable him to save his son Brandon. After an early start with marijuana, Brandon went with a friend to buy cocaine, but they got heroin instead. He died that night of an overdose.

Is There Any Science on this Progression from Marijuana to Other Drugs?

Those on both sides of the marijuana issue often disagree on whether or not marijuana serves as a gateway to other drugs. A New Zealand study published in 2000 offers some insight on this point. Researchers followed the drug use of 1,265 New Zealand youth over a 21-year period.

By 21, nearly 70% of these youth had used marijuana and 26% had used other illicit drugs. “In all but three cases, the use of cannabis had preceded the use of illicit drugs,” the study reports. The researchers conclude that marijuana may not be shown to cause the use of other drugs, but it “may act as a gateway drug that encourages other forms of illicit drug use.”

Those in Recovery Weigh in, Too

Interviews with those who completed rehabilitation at Narconon supports the concept that starting with marijuana leads many people down a path to full-blown addiction. The people quoted here recovered from addiction to heroin, cocaine or party drugs like Ecstasy. These excerpts make the connection clear.

“Once I was smoking pot, I was around people who were doing other drugs, so it made it easier to just do those other drugs. I was, like, ‘Well these people are doing it and they seem fine.’ So I did it.”

Girl at a party reaches for party drugs.

“I got started when I was in junior high. I was hanging out with an outcast crowd. We would do anything that was considered wrong or bad. So, naturally, when marijuana came around, we did marijuana. Of course we instantly we liked it, we continued doing it, and I guess as time progressed we kept looking for more and more thrills and that was it.”

“When I started using marijuana, it took me about a year to get into harder drugs. Experimenting with different drugs, party drugs, things like that. It felt good to smoke pot, it felt good to use these drugs. I knew it was wrong. That led me down the path of using other drugs.”

The debate over marijuana legalization is not going to end anytime soon. It’s important for parents, educators and legislators to know the effects of early marijuana use before they make decisions about this drug.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.