While Marijuana Endures, Prescription Pills Emerge as a Killer

The '60s generation still favors marijuana, a new study says. But a trend toward prescription drug abuse proves more deadly.

The Partnership for a Drug Free America’s anti-marijuana efforts are aimed at the wrong audience, says Richard Miech, Ph.D, a health and behavioral sciences professor at the University of Colorado, Denver.

While the group's campaigns tend to focus on today's teens and young adults, it appears that it's the teens and young adults from another era that really need to hear the message: “The 1960s were a real heyday of drug use, especially marijuana,” says Dr Miech. And for many in the generation that grew up in that period and a bit later, the heyday has never ended, according to a new study by Miech and Stephen Koester published in the February 2012 issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

“The baby boom generation has the highest rates of marijuana use of any cohort ever recorded, and they’ve persisted in their marijuana use as they’ve aged,” Miech tells Next Avenue. “So the big spike in marijuana use in the 1960s was not something … that petered out.” (A Monitoring the Future Survey found that lifetime use of marijuana among U.S. high school seniors peaked in 1979 at 60.4 percent.) 

Marijuana Holds Less Appeal for Hispanics and Young People 

That trend holds true across the boundaries of gender and ethnicity, with one notable exception: Hispanics. As Miech points out, many Hispanic boomers were born outside the United States and therefore weren't exposed to the permissive American drug culture of the 1960s and '70s.
But the generation as a whole has shown more interest in marijuana than those that followed it. In fact, Miech found that today's young have a lower proclivity for using marijuana than any other group that came of age in the past 50 years. 
“Each generation is a little less interested in marijuana than the last,” he says. “So if we’re going to pursue public health interventions against marijuana use, they shouldn’t focus on young people, like policies do today and like the Partnership for a Drug Free America’s ads do. If you really want to reduce marijuana use, you need to think about reaching people of all ages — and particularly baby boomers.”
Miech’s analysis suggests, however, that America has a more pressing problem than marijuana: a sharp rise in abuse of prescription drugs — mainly opiates like Oxycodone, Vicodin and Codeine — which has led to an unprecedented numbers of deaths by overdose, especially among boomers.

The Growing Threat From Prescription Drugs
Prescription drugs now account for the majority of overdose deaths, after many years of moving in that direction. Between the 1960s and the 2000s, overdose death rates tripled, largely as a result of prescription drug abuse, according to Miech. And women have been particularly hard hit: Between 1999 and 2005, deaths resulting from prescription drug overdoses among females doubled.
At first glance, boomers don't appear to be in the vanguard of the trend toward prescription drug abuse, which is more prevalent among younger generations, Miech found. “Today, it seems like young people who want to use drugs [replace] marijuana with prescription pills,” he says. 
Accidental Overdoses Kill More Boomers 
But even though boomers are generally less likely than young people to abuse prescription drugs, they are more likely to die of a prescription drug overdose than any other group, according to Miech. On average, the generation that came of age in the 60s and 70s is more than twice as likely as other Americans to suffer a fatal drug overdose.
In part, that’s because boomers are more inclined to mix the pills they take to get high with medications taken for therapeutic reasons, or with alcohol. But there are other factors: For example, older adults’ livers may have difficulty processing drugs, Miech notes. 
Although prescription drugs have proved to be most deadly for boomers, these deaths have increased in other generations as well. “Accidental poisoning is going to be the next big epidemic of our time,” Miech says. “It’s going to get worse before it gets better. A lot of people are going to die.”
Prescription drug addiction afflicts four times as many Americans as addition to heroin, he adds. And prescription opiate pain killers like Oxycodone cause more deaths than heroin.

“Non-medical use of prescription drugs now ranks second behind marijuana as the most common forms of illicit drug use,” Miech says. “Non-medical use of prescription opioids has grown to such an extent that by 2002, they surpassed heroin and cocaine as the most common cause of fatal drug poisoning in the United States.”

Fewer African-Americans Succumb to Prescription Drugs
In another breakdown of the data, Miech found that deaths caused by drug overdose had climbed more rapidly among whites than blacks of all age groups in recent decades. This is partly because overdose death rates were already high for African-Americans.

But there may be another reason, says Miech.

“I think within black culture there’s more skepticism about prescription drugs,” he explains. “African-Americans are far less likely to let their child take Ritalin for ADHD, for example. There’s a fear the institution is trying to medicalize their children, or do something sinister. I think that reluctance has served as a protective factor, preventing blacks from engaging whole-scale in this trend toward more accidental overdose deaths.
“If I had to guess,” Miech says, “I’d say that is more of a factor than access to healthcare.”

Bryant Furlow is a medical journalist and investigative reporter who lives in Alburquerque, N.M.


Bryant Furlow
By Bryant Furlow
Bryant Furlow is an investigative reporter and medical writer who lives in Albuquerque.

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