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Fewer Young Americans Are Using Drugs — But An Increasing Number Of Older Americans Are

By Sy Mukherjee

"Fewer Young Americans Are Using Drugs — But An Increasing Number Of Older Americans Are"

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The rate of illicit drug use among young Americans aged 12 to 17 dropped by nearly 20 percent in the past decade, from 11.6 percent to 9.5 percent, according to new data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). But at the same time, substantially greater numbers of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 started using controlled substances.

In 2002, about 3.5 percent of people aged 50 to 54 were using illegal drugs. Now, that number has more than doubled to 7.2 percent. Those aged 55 to 59 have seen an even greater increase, with more than triple the percentage (6.6 percent) using drugs in 2012 than the 1.9 percent that were doing so 10 years ago:

samhsa drug use chart

CREDIT: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

Both the downward trend in teenagers’ drug use and the upward trajectory of older people’s drug use is mostly attributable to fluctiations in the number of people using marijuana, which remains the most commonly-used illicit substance in America. However, a portion of the rise in 50 to 64 year olds’ narcotic intake is due to the increasing popularity of psychotherapeutic drugs like prescription painkillers for recreational use.

Government researchers were unable to pinpoint a precise reason that more middle-aged and elderly Americans are using drugs. But they did suggest it could be due to social and cultural differences in the current aging population. “These patterns and trends partially reflect the aging into these age groups of members of the baby boom cohort, whose rates of illicit drug use have been higher than those of older cohorts,” wrote the researchers.

Officials also lauded the declining use of marijuana among American adolescents, since some research has shown that the drug may have have adverse effects on brains that are still forming. “There’s no question that marijuana is harmful to the developing brains of adolescents,” said SAMHSA administrator Pamela Hyde during a press conference on Wednesday. Numerous studies have shown marijuana to be relatively harmless for adults, although scientific research into the area is largely stalled because marijuana is still classified as a “Schedule I” controlled substance.

The trend towards using more painkillers could be of greater concern. In 2010, more women died from prescription painkiller overdoses than from cervical cancer and car accidents combined. Americans’ increasing penchant for opiates has also led pharmacies like CVS to take drastic measures such as cutting off prescription privileges for doctors who are found to prescribe too many pain pills.

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