Illicit Drug Use Over 50 On the Rise: Survey

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on September 08, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Illicit drug use by Americans over 50 has dramatically increased, while illicit drug use among young people has declined, according to the latest survey on drug use by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The data was gleaned from 70,000 Americans who were surveyed about their "past month use" of a variety of drugs, including marijuana, heroin, cocaine and prescription drugs (used in "nonmedical" contexts).

The findings suggest a paradigm shift in older Americans' views on drug use -- and particularly of marijuana. Here are a few highlights from the study:

  • Increased drug use by baby boomers. For adults aged 50 to 54, the rate of illicit drug use more than doubled since 2002 to 7.2 percent last year, the survey found. For those aged 55 to 59, it more than tripled to 6.6 percent. Among those 60 to 64, the rate was 3.6 percent, up from 1.1 percent in 2003. Marijuana and prescription meds were the most commonly used drugs.
  • Decreased drug use by teens. According to the survey, rates of illicit drug use by young adults aged 18 to 25 use have remained somewhat steady over recent years, with a slight increase in marijuana use. The rate of use by younger teenagers has declined from 11.6 percent in 2002 to 9.5 percent in 2012 -- which is actually still "higher" than the baby boomers' usage.
  • The waning stigma of marijuana. Marijuana is still the most popular drug of choice among both children and adults, according to the survey. That's not surprising when considering that a majority of Americans now favor pot legalization, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted earlier this year. Much of the shift in attitude can be attributed to growing skepticism of marijuana as a gateway drug, the utility of marijuana law enforcement, the drug's medical benefits and the waning stigma surrounding its "immorality."
  • Alcohol and smoking reign supreme. The total disability and illness burden due to illicit drugs -- including opioids, amphetamines, cocaine and cannabis -- is still less than from smoking and alcohol. Together, those legal drugs account for about 10 percent of the worldwide burden of illness and death, according to two comprehensive global studies reported by NPR.

So guess it may finally be time to have a serious talk with Mom and Pops about drugs, booze and smoking.

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