The Secret Epidemic – Drug Abuse in the Over 50s

Mind altering substances weren’t invented in the ‘60s, not by a long chalk. Since the first fermented fruit or grain people have imbibed ‘til legless. Bacchus the god of wine was worshipped by the ancient Romans who indulged in infamous Bacchanalian orgies. Even more astonishing is that it has been recorded in the early years after the birth of Christ, a chap called Dioscorides listed a thousand drugs in his Materia Medica with descriptions of their properties and effects – including the ones that “cause sleep”, “cause frenzies” and “ease pain”.

As early as 1500 AD certain herbs were labelled as narcotic: cannabis, henbane, belladonna, opium poppy, hemlock, aconite and mandrake. Drugs that could aid sleep but if taken in excess could also induce feverish hallucinations.

Throughout history drugs have been associated with the talented and famous. So often it was the premise that their use enhanced the creative process or purely as a form of social one up-manship.

In 1821 Thomas de Quincy serialised his “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” which was the first publication to glamourise drugs as a source of pleasure and pain. Since then writers as diverse as Virginia Woolf and W H Auden admitted to drug use as part of their “muse”. And let’s not forget that Sherlock Holmes used a solution of pure cocaine administered with a hypodermic needle.


William S Burroughs probably created the druggiest benchmark in 1959 with his book “The Naked Lunch”. A compilation of vignettes glorifying drug use, obscenity and depravity.

In the 1950s heroin was the drug of choice for many jazz musicians and was responsible for the relatively early demise of several including Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Billie Holliday.

The Mod culture was fuelled by Purple Hearts (amphetamine and barbiturate) which became criminalised in 1964.

However, it wasn’t until the late ‘60s that the drug culture went mainstream.

1967 was dubbed “The Summer of Love”. The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper, Timothy Leary entreated us “to turn on, tune in and drop out” and the youth of the world embraced the Hippy movement.


Marijuana was everywhere. Growing it was relatively easy and if you couldn’t be arsed to grow your own finding the local dealer was simplicity itself. Psychedelic art adorned every poster and album cover and psychedelic drugs such as LSD allowed the user to “trip out” or simply put-hallucinate.

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As the “Love” generation started to drift back to the mundane world of finding a career and living in relative normality many of them continued to smoke “weed” as a relaxant or mood enhancer.

The next drug craze wasn’t long in coming. In the early ‘70s cocaine started to proliferate. Where smoking a “joint” created a feeling of lethargic well being cocaine offered a different high. Short term feelings of elation, energy and an unfounded belief that every sentenced uttered was littered with pearls of wisdom.

Cocaine even had its own song written by JJ Cale and famously recorded by Eric Clapton.

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Because “coke” was relatively expensive it was seen as somewhat elitist and during the “greed is good” days of the early 1980s it was widely used by trendy socialites and the high flying city traders.

As the hippies faded into obscurity and city wide boys became disenfranchised by their own greed the knock on effect of twenty years of guilt free drug use has had some very disturbing long term effects.

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None of us need to be told that as we get older our bodies can no longer cope with the excesses of our youth and the sad truth is that the seventeen year old hippy is now in their early sixties and the city trader of the eighties is now in their early to mid fifties.

Recent studies have shown that where drug abuse is actually dropping in the under 40 age group it is increasing rapidly in the over 50s. Incredibly almost one in ten over 50 in inner London has admitted to smoking cannabis on a regular basis.

“The more I seem to get older, the more it seems to go worse. I shouldn’t be doing this.”

“I shouldn’t be going out grafting and then running round like a 19-year-old scally looking for heroin and coke. Like I shouldn’t even be on methadone now. It’s madness.”

These are the words of a 56-year-old male drug addict.

Research from the Centre for Public Health in Liverpool, published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing, shows he is representative of a vulnerable group of people who are long-term drug users now reaching retirement age.

Actual figures are a little sketchy as to the true extent because elder people are less inclined to be targeted in national statistics nevertheless it is estimated that in the last 10 years percentages of elderly drug abuse has doubled from approximately 1.8% to 3.5%. Allowing that the 65-80 plus age group are unlikely to be using illicit drugs it leaves in excess of 700,000 people with a problem.


The reasons are manifold. First and foremost, some people just couldn’t shake the need for the drugs they started using in their youth. Then there are the stresses and strains of modern living that have caused previous users to return to the same escape route that they are all too familiar with. There is even evidence that illicit drugs are being used to offset the effects of illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis.

At the risk of stating the obvious the health implications of regular substance abuse are serious and the older you get the more serious they become. Heart, liver, lungs and blood are all affected and mental health can be severely damaged with symptoms such as clinical depression and paranoia.

This article has focussed primarily on the use of illegal substances but excessive use of alcohol is also significant insofar that our generation is also drinking far more than our forebears and the fact that it is totally legal presents no less of a problem than all the others mentioned herein.

The age old adage states “to solve a problem first of all you have to accept that there is a problem”. Without acceptance there can be no cure.

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The first steps to recovery are relatively easy. The local GP will have access to suitable treatment centres and programmes. The private sector is easily accessible via a simple Google search and of course both Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous welcome applicants with open arms. The hardest part is seeing it through to being non-dependant.

Nonbeige will never preach or patronise but we will highlight issues that concern our readership and whilst we are celebrating later life we will never shy away from the problems that affect it too. If you have any questions or comments about this or any other article please do contact us.

With thanks to:

History of Drugs. Narcotics Antiquitas – The Independent 10th November 2010

The BBC News – Health

Chip Somers