An employee pulls marijuana out of a large canister for...

An employee pulls marijuana out of a large canister for a customer at the LoDo Wellness Center in downtown Denver, Colorado, on Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014. Credit: Bloomberg / Matthew Staver

Heroin is all the rage in Albany these days.

Everybody's talking about it -- legislators, law enforcement officials and community leaders. It's gotten to the point where one can hardly walk through the hallways of the state Capitol without stumbling into some subcommittee hearing or other on heroin abuse.

The attention is merited. The drug we used to call "H" or "smack" or "dope" is back with a vengeance. It's stronger and cheaper than it was in the 1970s, now coming in smokable or snortable doses for as little as $5. What's more than a little ironic, though, is that some legislators warning about the dangers of heroin are the very same ones who have advocated decriminalization of marijuana or the legalization of "med mar" in New York, which many view as a not-so-subtle first step toward full pot legalization. More on that in a moment.

Most people I encounter roll their eyes when pot and heroin are mentioned in the same sentence. One has nothing to do with the other, they say, and in many cases they are right. But in other cases they are wrong. The two have everything to do with each other. After all is said and done, pot remains the gateway drug. I didn't get that from watching the 1936 anti-drug classic "Reefer Madness" too many times; I got it first-hand, from three years in a drug-rehabilitation center beginning at age 16.

The first leap I made in trying drugs -- smoking pot -- was the biggie. After that, it was more like a stutter step from one drug to the next. Hashish was easy. That was like pot's cousin, I told myself. And then came mushrooms. Hey, they're organic. That invariably led to mescaline, which led to LSD, which was really just self-examination of the mind -- right? And the pills? Well, what's a guy to do? You need those to take the edge off the cocaine. And it wasn't just me. Everyone in the crowd I ran with did the same circa 1979.

Heroin seemed different, even for an established drug user. Heroin involved a needle; it was for junkies. That was a leap too far for me.

But when I walked into the rehab center, chair after chair was filled with heroin addicts. It didn't matter whether they were rich or poor, black or white, young or not so young, they had made that leap and landed in a field of quicksand.

It was always an experiment that got out of hand. Quaaludes weren't available; Tuinal and Seconal weren't quite doing it and "this guy came to the party carrying a bag of dope." I heard the story 100 times. "I just meant to try it . . ."

At least a third of those guys (and girls) were dead within four or five years, we'd later learn through the grapevine. Some died of overdoses after wandering back into using. Others died from a mysterious flu-like illness that would later be known as AIDS.

Today's heroin epidemic is scarier, if that's possible. Needles are no longer required for experimentation. That means curious drug users like I was in my early teens will try smoking or snorting heroin. (I would have.) What's more, the stigma surrounding the drug is gone, as hard as that is to believe. Anyone older than 40 in America was weaned on education campaigns warning against heroin use. Kids today were not.

What they have been weaned on instead -- and here I return to my earlier point -- is the notion that pot is OK, that it will one day be legal nationwide once the old-fashioned fuddy-duddys in statehouses are pushed aside. And where do they get this information? Why, from the attitudes of their elected leaders and other adults.

Kids today are getting mixed messages about drugs. They are being taught that pot and alcohol reside in one category, and drugs like heroin in another. Talk to those who've been there. For lots of people that notion will prove fatal.

William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant who is working on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.