It's been four decades since the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, but aging baby boomers haven't stopped turning on. The federal government's National Survey on Drug Use and Health, released earlier this month, finds that as boomers move into their 50s in large numbers, drug use among older adults in the United States has hit its highest point ever.
In the government's latest report, reflecting drug use in 2007, 1 in 20 Americans ages 50 to 59 told researchers they had taken illicit drugs in the past month.
More than half of these older users still like their street drugs, including marijuana and cocaine. But as they contend with the aches and pains of aging, boomer drug users are adding prescription drug use to their mix of vices, according to the report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
A new generation of drug users, by contrast, isn't waiting to reach middle-age to add prescription drugs to its portfolio of abuse, the report says. Among teens and young adults ages 12 to 25, one-third of those who use illicit drugs say they recently have abused prescription drugs - including painkillers, tranquilizers and stimulants. Among kids ages 12 to 17, 3.3 percent had abused prescription psychotherapeutic drugs in the past month. Among 17- to 25-year-olds, 6 percent had abused prescription drugs in the past month.
Those generational trends are driving a significant change on the landscape of U.S. drug abuse. After years of declining American use of street drugs - cocaine, hallucinogens and marijuana - prescription medications have begun moving front and center as the nation's drug of choice.
The result, according to the latest federal drug-use survey: Last year, Americans who began abusing prescription drugs outnumbered those who took up smoking marijuana - traditionally the nation's "gateway drug."
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, says the report underscores a "paradigm shift" in drug abuse and in its likely treatment. Though addiction to prescription drugs is not new, the current generation of teens and young adults has grown up around unprecedented use of prescription drugs, Volkow says, and is inclined to view them as safe simply because they are prescribed by doctors.
"That comfort level," Volkow says, "facilitates the abuse" of these medications. Add to that the high from such drugs as narcotic pain relievers, she says, and young users are at high risk of becoming addicted.
Volkow adds that a shift toward prescription drug abuse also may make it harder for the new generation's drug users to "age out" of their habit, as many baby boomers - though clearly not all - have done. Users of street drugs, Volkow says, frequently quit as they find that unpleasant side effects become more pronounced with age and prolonged use. Users of prescription medications, by contrast, tend to build tolerance to the effects over time, prompting them in some cases to use more, not less, and more often, Volkow says.
Researchers with the federal substance abuse agency said they remain uncertain if baby-boomer drug users had continued to take illicit substances through mid-adulthood or, rather, returned to a youthful habit as they aged. John P. Walters, the nation's drug czar, expressed surprise that although young Americans are turning away from cocaine and methamphetamine, use of such street drugs continues among their elders.
Jim Steinhagen, executive director of the Hazelden Center for Youth and Families in suburban St. Paul, Minn., says that for young people, experimentation with prescription drugs only seems safer than their parents' drug forays.
"We're seeing kids coming to the treatment center more acutely addicted than we ever have before, so the degree of detox we need is more extensive and takes a longer period of time," says Steinhagen, a 32-year practitioner of addiction treatment. "The kind of substance use that goes on today is like extreme sports for this generation - quicker, faster, a more dangerous thrill-seeking experience."
lock 'em up
Leftover prescription painkillers frequently languish in the family medicine chest. Anti-anxiety medications, including the benzodiazepines known by their commercial names Xanax and Ativan, take up shelf space because they are prescribed for episodic use.
Unwittingly, parents who leave these medications unsecured and unmonitored are tempting their children - and their children's friends - to try drugs they have heard about from schoolmates, seen in movies and read about on the Internet. In a teenager's calculation, the price is right and the risks - of scoring the drugs, at least - are low.
For parents, the antidotes to youthful rebellion and the impulse to dangerous experimentation may be complex and elusive. But making it harder for kids to lay hands on drugs with high addiction potential, say experts, is simple: Lock the drugs up.