Drug Use Aging with Baby Boomer Users

In his memoir Dreams From My Father, originally published almost 12 years ago, Barack Obama confessed to having experimented with hard drugs, including cocaine, in his befuddled youth. In light of the 45-year-old U.S.

Drug Use Aging with Baby Boomer Users

In his memoir Dreams From My Father, originally published almost 12 years ago, Barack Obama confessed to having experimented with hard drugs, including cocaine, in his befuddled youth. In light of the 45-year-old U.S. senator's likely presidential bid, this revelation was recently dusted off by the media for renewed scrutiny, but was met by the public with a yawn of indifference. The fact is, every second baby boomer in our midst has experimented with some type of illicit drug in his lifetime. Bill Clinton's 1992 admission to having smoked marijuana (but not "inhaling"), so shocking then, now just serves to remind us how much we've grown up in a decade. Still, we may not quite be prepared for the long-term effects of a tuned-in era that lie ahead of us, as thousands of boomers lug their dependencies into their 50s and 60s.

New studies reveal that the fastest-growing demographic of drug users in the U.S. is white, middle-aged, and well-to-do. The 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released in the fall, found illicit drug use among Americans in their 50s is up by 63 per cent since 2002. More than 4.4 per cent of American baby boomers said they had used illicit drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin or crack in the past month, up from 2.7 per cent in 2002. Among adults in their 40s and 50s, deaths from illicit drug overdose are up by 800 per cent since 1980. In a surprising twist, the study reports that substance use among teens declined by 15 per cent between 2002 and 2005. "It's almost like a tale of two generations and their perceptions on drug use," says Tom Riley, spokesman for the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Official numbers in Canada don't yet appear to reflect this trend. Still, on the front lines, drug-treatment professionals say they're watching it happen. "We're seeing adults in their 50s and 60s being treated for cocaine," says Neal Berger, executive director of Cedars at Cobble Hill, a residential treatment facility in British Columbia. "We've had people in here in their 60s who are in trouble with crack - middle-class people. Ten years ago we certainly didn't see that."

It's perhaps not shocking that illicit drug use would rise with the greying of a generation who came of age during the most drug-friendly era in modern Western history. "I don't want to get into the gateway drug hypothesis," says Riley, "but almost everybody who becomes a habitual user of cocaine and heroin is a marijuana user first." Most youths who experimented with pot in the '60s and '70s tried it and moved on, but a fraction became lifelong devotees.Tapped into the larger drug culture, these are the ones likely to explore more aggressive substances as they become fashionable.

From an epidemiological point of view, says Berger, the percentage of older adults battling addiction has not changed. What is changing, he says, is the sheer size of the cohort and the nature of the drugs. "Whereas 20 years ago people in their 60s would've been fighting alcohol or prescription medications," he says, "the drugs of choice among today's 50- and 60-year-olds are harder, more potent. A generation ago, they had never been exposed to this kind of stuff."

The number of boomers using is probably even higher than we suspect, experts say, since they are more likely than younger users to go undiagnosed. By middle age, many have been managing their addictions for so long, they appear normal and fully functional to those around them. "But as you get older, it's harder to hold it together," says Berger. "Sooner or later something breaks. You get in a traffic accident. You get fired from your job. Your spouse says she's going to leave you. It's usually some sort of crisis that for the first time shines light on the problem."

Now that the cracks are beginning to show, we could be facing a new public health crisis. Older substance abusers pose special treatment concerns that many facilities are not currently trained or equipped to deal with. "[Older patients] will come in and they'll have been medically mismanaged because their physicians have been trying to provide care for problems caused by drug use but no one was honest about it," says Berger. "So physicians are still trying to treat them for gastrointestinal disorders or cardio-respiratory difficulties, for instance."

In the next five years, as the first boomers pass the 65 mark, analysts expect the face of drug addiction to look gradually less like Nicole Richie and more like Gary Busey. "Then it'll be about seniors with drug abuse problems," says Riley. "That's where that pig moving through the python will be."

See also DRUG USE, NON MEDICAL.

Maclean's January 29, 2007