Still Crazy: Some Dabble In Hard Drugs After 50, Researchers Find

The specter of a burned-out Baby Boomer using hard drugs way into middle age may conjure images of addiction, destruction and death.

That certainly can be true, but it’s not the complete picture, at least according to a new study from researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who found that people who occasionally use drugs like cocaine, amphetamines and opiates over the course of their lives are more common than anyone might suspect.

“When you think of a drug user, you often think of someone strung-out, using every day, and in deep trouble, but national data shows that that's not the most common thing you see," says Dr. Stefan Kertesz, an associate professor in the UAB Division of Preventive Medicine. “The most common pattern is illicit drug use at lower levels."

In other words, these sporadic drug users are “dabblers,” says Kertesz, lead author of the study that followed more than 4,300 people from four cities recruited between the ages of 18 to 30 in 1985 and 1986 -- and then tracked them for almost 20 years.

He confirmed what he suspected from his experience in clinical care: that some perfectly functional middle-agers still turn to the drugs of their youth.

"I meet people who use harder drugs on an intermittent basis," says Kertesz, who was trying to find ways doctors can better help patients who use drugs recreationally.

"I wasn't at all surprised that we had a lot of people who use hard drugs at a lower level,” he said. “The question we're trying to answer is: What are the likely health outcomes for those people?"

According to statistics from the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 7 percent of Americans ages 35 to 49 and more than 9 percent of those ages 50 to 59 reported use of a drug other than marijuana sometime in the past year.

While many dabblers may think there’s no harm in the occasional habit, Kertesz found those Baby Boomers and Gen Xers who continued to use hard drugs into their 50s were five times more likely to die earlier than those who didn’t.

Those early deaths weren’t necessarily from drug overdoses, but instead from the risky kinds of lives the longtime users lived, Kertesz said.

“I'd say that those who start at higher levels and persistently dabbled seem to be high-risk people,” he says.

While the notion of parents (or even grandparents) using heroin and/or cocaine may seem like a hard pill to swallow, Kertesz isn’t the only one who’s seen it.

Jeff Wolfsberg, a Boston drug education specialist (and recovering addict), says he's heard plenty of stories of Baby Boomers still indulging in hard drugs.

"I can't tell you the number of conversations I've had with students about how they know their parents did coke on their vacation," he says. "There are probably more people using heroin sporadically then there are addicts.”

The difference is that the occasional users often also have good jobs, nice homes, and families, he adds. “If you have a lot going on in your life, you're not going to let yourself fall too deep."

Cindy, a 60-year-old upper-middle-class retiree from Boston, is a prime example of an older user. Though she declines to reveal her last name for obvious reasons, Cindy does say she and her husband use cocaine now and then because they like the "subtle high."

"I don't have this addictive thing where I have to go out and get it," she says. "I do it very sporadically. A gram of coke will last two months."

Cindy says she tried pot in high school, but didn’t like it. Alcohol has never been much of a draw for her, either. She’s never tried heroin or LSD or amphetamines.

"I'm a total scaredy-cat," she says. "I would never do anything else. I guess I don't consider coke a hard drug. I know there are people who do it and can't stop but I believe they have an addictive personality. I don't think I have an addictive personality. Although I do have a little shopping addiction. I love to shop."

While Cindy has discussed her sporadic drug use with her doctor, she says he told her that as long as she wasn't doing it every single weekend, she was fine.

But hard drugs like cocaine can pose a problem, even if you’re not addicted, says Dr. David Sack, an addiction psychiatrist and the chief executive of Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, Calif.

"There are people who can drink every weekend for 25 years and not become alcoholics," he says. "It doesn't mean the alcohol isn't doing them harm. And there are people who use cocaine or other drugs the same way. They don't miss work, but there are still complications.”

There’s the risk of stroke or seizure, for instance, or of triggering a blood pressure crisis.

“Much of the risk associated with these drugs occurs whether you're addicted or whether you're using it for a single night,” Sack adds. “The toxicity of these drugs doesn't go away just because you're not addicted."

And there are other things to consider when it comes to using illicit drugs. Jail time, for instance. Why would someone from an upper middle class background take that kind of risk?

"It can be something as simple as they're looking for excitement in their lives," says Wolfsberg.

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  • by Gerald Location: Florida on Feb 7, 2012 at 01:39 PM
    New book from a pharmacist who "dabbled" until he lost his career, freedom, wife, and nearly, his life. Called "Long Sleeved Summers," by Michael Janflone. Check it out!
  • by Anonymous on Feb 5, 2012 at 07:39 PM
    Pot is still illegal, it will damage your personal life not to mention your professional life if you become arrested and you have an arrest record following you around.
  • by Col. Colt Location: ENC on Feb 5, 2012 at 10:10 AM
    The story starts with a study by UAB, thich translates into a federal grant.
  • by construction worker Location: greenville on Feb 5, 2012 at 09:16 AM
    I have been working for same employer for 15 yrs smoking pot every other day! He loves my work but had to start drug testing for insurance reasons. I had to resort to drinking on weekends and a couple of beers during the week. I dont like the way I feel in the mornings now and have been told I have a bad atitude , Guess I need to turn to pills next. THIS SUCKS!!
    • reply
      by Formerly O.L.I. on Feb 5, 2012 at 02:52 PM in reply to construction worker
      Sounds like you have a 'problem'. Please, seek help soon; signed, Someone You Share The Road With
  • by druggie Location: ignorant baptist territory on Feb 5, 2012 at 09:00 AM
    Been doing drugs this AM. Am addicted to caffiene. Nowadays, my MD is my dealer.
  • by rt Location: enc on Feb 5, 2012 at 07:41 AM
    pot is harmless. the legal drugs are more of a problem. I bet half the little ol ladys out there are high on some sort of prescition medicine, and are driving around. isn't that a DWI offense?? just sayin...
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Feb 5, 2012 at 01:51 PM in reply to rt
      I agree, people think because it's given out legally through your doc, that it's always safe. Mixing pills and over medicating is also bad for the liver.
  • by pete Location: grifton on Feb 5, 2012 at 06:25 AM
    After age 30 there is a 5% chance they will stay off drug's.
  • by Anonymous on Feb 5, 2012 at 06:16 AM
    well pot is for losers
    • reply
      by c-had on Feb 5, 2012 at 08:45 AM in reply to
      You gotta love stereotypes.You mean losers like Carl Sagan, Thomas Jefferson, and Michael Phelps.LOL
      • reply
        by Anonymous on Feb 5, 2012 at 10:09 AM in reply to c-had
        Not to mention probably hundreds of thousands of other very successful pot smokers.
        • reply
          by OSOC on Feb 5, 2012 at 01:25 PM in reply to
          You mean like C and C or Snoop?
      • reply
        by OSOC on Feb 5, 2012 at 01:25 PM in reply to c-had
        Nope, I think he was referring to you!
    • reply
      by MD on Feb 5, 2012 at 09:28 AM in reply to
      Oh my gosh. Just knew I was a looser.
    • reply
      by well on Feb 5, 2012 at 01:57 PM in reply to
      Well, to be honest about it, some people who smoke ALL the time and become lazy are losers. But many prof. people smoke at the end of a day, to relax. I consider this, the way most prof. use pot, a good way to unwind at the end of the day. Some people prefer a little pot, over a little bit of beer, wine , etc.
  • by Formerly O.L.I. Location: ENC on Feb 5, 2012 at 05:51 AM
    Still crazy? I'd say so, since those drugs mentioned are illegal. They'd have to be crazy to admit what they do to someone who has the legal responsibility to report them.
  • by Anonymous on Feb 5, 2012 at 05:45 AM
    Yeah, and it's a "hard pill to swallow" LOL
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