We live in a judgy, black-and-white country that tells us there's one way to do things, and one way only.

When I was in middle school, a hulking D.A.R.E. officer with a bulletproof vest and a crew cut lectured us that drugs fried your brain, shrunk your balls and put you in prison. ("Drugs" meant weed, LSD, shrooms, ecstasy, cocaine — all of it except, you know, the legal drugs.) I had never met anyone who did "drugs," and was perplexed why anyone would — if drugs are so obviously bad, why the long sermons? No one came to class to tell us not to stick our dicks in the lawn mower.

Then, in high school, my buddies who had inattentive parents huddled in their garages and unfinished basements and smoked BC bud and Mexican ditch weed out of cigarettes and soda cans. I remained loyal to the D.A.R.E. cop and turned down the first dozen opportunities to smoke. No prison for me, thanks.

Later, of course, I inhaled. And my story with drugs is so common I barely have to tell it.

Weed was, in fact, my gateway drug.

Marijuana was a psychological gateway. Anytime you talk about a gateway, you have to ask: gateway to what? It gave us access to a truth, the knowledge that the D.A.R.E. crewcut was dissembling, prevaricating, and misrepresenting substances that had evident upsides; he'd lumped all "drugs" together; so, naturally, by college, so did we: cannabis, shrooms, ecstasy and coke.

Yes, I got in trouble, did a few too many stims: too much coke and ritalin and meth-y ecstasy. But I've had a great time on drugs, for the most part. I never robbed anyone, never raped anyone, never murdered anyone, never lost a house, a job, a relationship; laughed my ass off and went about my day, to quote a poet.

A gateway is a an entrance into a new world, and there's a gateway for everything.

photo - marijuana gateway drug exit drug

Take sex. The Catholics scolded us into believing that boning without a ring on your finger meant Jesus cried big fat tears. But after a charming cheerleader from Standley Lake broke with every other girl I'd ever talked to and said she desired skin-to-skin with me, and when that two-minute-thirty-second adventure was over the Nazarene carpenter didn't show up in my dreams disappointed, well, by college I'd become a drunken slut.

That lovely girl was my gateway for sex, and I'll always have a soft spot for her.

Or take travel. I grew up in a lower-middle-class suburb where nobody had the money to leave the country, ever. So why should I? When Merica was better than everywhere? Yet, junior year, I studied abroad in Belgium — beautiful, rainy Belgium — and was blown away that other countries besides America were interesting, that their fries are better, their waffles crisper, and that Belgians are as stoked on being Belgian as I'm stoked on being American. It opened me up to thinking: what about non-Belgium countries? Over the next 10 years I visited 45 more countries, happily (and also drunkenly).

Belgium was my gateway for travel, and I'll always love it.  

A gateway is just the first thing you do that gives you access to a new world. Sex isn't bad, nor travel. Nor drugs, necessarily, if they don't disrupt your life.

There's a meme going around that marijuana is not a gateway drug — it's an exit drug. It's something that gets you off other drugs.

Dahlia Mertens, CEO of Mary Jane's Medicinals, maker of cannabis-infused salves and lotions, says she constantly meets people who've switched from opioids painkillers to cannabis topicals for their joint pain. She calls marijuana an "exit drug."

A study in the fancy medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine backs up her observation of marijuana as an exit drug; saying, on a statewide level, that "laws that let people use marijuana to treat specific medical conditions were associated with about a 6 percent lower rate of opioid prescribing for pain."

The Exit Drug idea is catching on. Many folks make it their mission to use cannabis to pry addicts off their Percocets and Oxycontins. A group in Southern Colorado planned to offer free pot to opioid addicts. This week at the Colorado capitol, weed lobbyists are fighting to allow doctors to prescribe cannabis for any malady they're also allowed to write opioid scripts for. And WeedMaps funded a convincing 15-minute documentary called "The Exit Drug," about how cannabis could play a major role in ending the opioid crisis.

I'm down with this idea. For me, weed was a gateway drug at first — but, later, it became an exit drug. The wrecking ball substance, for me, wasn't pot, coke, ecstasy, LSD or shrooms, it was alcohol. (Same for a thousand years of men in my Irish Catholic family.) Starting around brunch most days, I had Seagrams in my veins. By the time Jimmy Kimmel came on, I was blotto. Eventually I recognized the problem, and couldn't stop. That is, until I gave up going cold turkey and swapped out booze for buds. Toked when I felt like getting tipsy. Vaped instead of shots. Weed relieved the pressure I felt to get fucked up on beer. Gave me something to do at parties. And, though I still overdo pot sometimes, I'm better at moderating my weed use than I ever could my alcohol use. I'm collecting my six year Alcoholic Anonymous chip next week. It's the hardest thing I ever did. (Ayahuasca and LSD also helped.)

My story, again, is so common that it barely needs repeating. But for me, as for so many, marijuana is both a gateway and an exit drug.

Marijuana is just the most common drug we have (besides booze), and so it's bound to be hundreds of different things to millions of distinct people, the same way your first sexual experience was an entrance to a new world and an exit from childhood, or your first trip to another country was a gateway to adventure and an exit from contented stability. Gateways aren't all good or bad. Neither are exits.

Pot is a flexible drug, an adaptogen, a jack-of-all-trades drug. It can get you into problems and get you out of jams. Don't try to put it in a box.