by Richard A. Sherer
America appears to be winning its war on substance abuse. However, some critics are concerned that we may be losing—or not even recognizing—a broader front in the war. Drug abusers today are more likely to be in their mid-30s to mid-50s or 60s. The consequences include increased drugrelated deaths and increased crime rates and arrests in the adult population.
In December, the Office of National Drug Control Policy reported a sharp drop in methamphetamine and steroid use among young people since 2001. They also found that the number of teenagers using illicit drugs had decreased by 700,000 during a 4-year period. The office summed it up by noting that, Overall, teen drug use continues to decline.
While these findings are unquestionably positive for the younger generation, it is the baby boomers who are suffering the greatest losses from substance abuse, and whose plight is largely overlooked by policy makers.
Baby boomers: problem children?
There is a generational bias going on, declared Mike Males, PhD, a lecturer in sociology at the University of California's Santa Cruz campus. Of 3700 drug deaths in California during 2003, only 51 were [in people] under the age of 20. Consistent with this trend in drug-related deaths, the Drug Addiction Help Line, a referral service, reported that the average age of a person likely to die of a drug overdose was 43 years in 2005, up from 32 years in 1985 and 22 years in 1970.
According to Males, The authorities have refused to deal with this issue. I think there are several reasons for this: For one, the war on drugs historically has gone after out-groups—minorities, immigrants, youth. We are unable, for political reasons, to deal with drug abuse problems among mainstream populations. Feared drugs were tied to feared populations, as an article in Scientific American said a few years ago.
The statistics are forcing that attitude to change. In 2003, DAWN, the Drug Abuse Warning Network of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), reported that decedents aged 35 to 54 years accounted for more than half of the drug misuse deaths in 30 metropolitan areas, and three fourths of such deaths in Detroit; Milwaukee; and Washington, DC. Persons this age accounted for fewer than half of drugrelated deaths in only 2 metropolitan areas, both of which were in Utah. The fatality rate for this group exceeded 400 deaths per 1 million population in Albuquerque, Baltimore, and Salt Lake City, and 300 per 1 million in an additional 5 metropolitan areas, as well as the states of New Mexico and Utah.
In Washington, DC, the greatest number of drug deaths—76—occurred in 2004 among persons aged 35 to 54, according to Erin Artigiani, deputy director for policy at the Center for Substance Abuse at the University of Maryland, College Park. The next-highest was the over-55 group, with 16 deaths. The 21- to 34-year age group had only 12 deaths, and only 1 person under 21 died. Artigiani added, That's nothing unusual. We don't usually see many people under 21. Mostly, it's the older users—those with the longest history of drug use, and who are using harder drugs.
DAWN's interim estimate of emergency
department (ED) visits nationwide
for the third and fourth quarters
of 2003 reaffirms the point: 35- to 44-
year-olds led all other age groups in
ED visits for every category of illicit
drug use. Combined with the 45- to 54-
year age group, they accounted for
53% of visits for cocaine use, 48% of
heroin cases, 31% of marijuana cases,
and 32% of cases involving stimulants.
I'm surprised the numbers have
escaped attention this long. How did it
get to the level it did with no notice? It's
really a remarkable information breakdown,
Males said. These numbers are
not generally picked up in the popular
press, added Artigiani. People usually
look for the heart-wrenching stories, the
young person who lost his or her chance
at life. Emergency room doctors and
counselors are well aware of the older
sector of drug users.
A variety of substances involved
Keep in mind that the large majority
of drug-related deaths involve more
than one substance, said Leah Young,
a spokesperson for SAMHSA. Look
at the mortality report for 2003. The
vast majority of reported deaths had
more than 1 substance in the body. It's
hard to know if they were synergetic,
or if just one substance was responsible
for the death. With older individuals,
you also may have prescription
drugs involved. Many people take more
than 1 of them, and continue using alcohol
and smoking marijuana. You have
to ask, 'What killed them?'
Males pointed out that the body
becomes less tolerant as the drug
becomes more concentrated. But you
also have a new population that's taking
up hard drugs in later years. Kids are
using milder drugs, like marijuana.
Ecstasy use has now subsided. These are
much more forgiving than harder drugs
like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine,
or whiskey. You're also seeing stronger
drugs, like OxyContin, which is practically
the same as buffered heroin, turning
up quite a bit among people who do
not have histories of serious drug abuse.
This should have been studied for 20
years. It's inexcusable that we don't
know more about it at this point.
Artigiani notes that many of the
deaths in Washington, DC, involved
cocaine. We also saw a lot of analgesics.
In other parts of the country,
you might see a lot more deaths from
methamphetamine, for instance. We
did see a couple of deaths in DC from
oxycodone, the active ingredient in
OxyContin. There was 1 from hydrocodone,
some related to codeine, a
couple related to antipsychotics and
The rise in middle-aged drug use
parallels an increase in depression
among the baby boom generation. One
2005 study found that the highest risk
of major depressive disorder was among
adults aged 45 to 60 and that more than
57% of patients with major depressive
disorder suffered from comorbid alcohol
or drug use. The average depressed
patient is about 40 years old, noted
Kenneth B. Wells, MD, MPH, professor
of health services at the University
of California, Los Angeles School of