Back in the Habit: Baby Boomers Admit Drug Abuse

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Those who came of age in the marijuana-happy, acid-dropping, cocaine-snorting 1960s and '70s are finding their way back to drugs.

In 2010, nearly 2.4 million people ages 50 to 59 said they had abused prescription or illegal drugs within the past month -- more than double that of 2002, according to data from the National Institutes of Health.

Emergency rooms nationwide are seeing more patients age 55 and older for reactions to cocaine, heroin and especially marijuana.

Visits to the emergency room for marijuana abuse, for example, jumped 200 percent from 2004 to 2009 in this age group, according to Gayathri Dowling, PhD, the acting chief of the science policy branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

"We knew a lot of baby boomers had used drugs in their youth," said Dowling.  "That is a risk factor.  The younger you use, the more likely you are to have problems later."

Dowling says boomers grew up in a culture where drug use "became less stigmatized."

Bee, 52, who lives in the Boston area, agrees.  She admits to heavy marijuana use in her late teens and early 20s, but then she kicked the habit.  Bee, who asked ABC News not to use her last name, started again in her 40s, while dating a man who liked to light up.

"If you've done it before," said Bee, "it's easier to start again."

She's now trying to quit, and has been mostly clean for six months.

In Florida, the Hanley Center, an addiction recovery facility in West Palm Beach, opened a boomer unit three years ago.  Juan Harris, the clinical director of boomer treatment, says they are packed.  Right now it's a 24-bed facility, with plans to expand to 40 beds.

"Alcohol addiction is [still] the primary substance for people age 50, but it's going down," said Harris.  "There are more and more people over 50 abusing more illicit stuff, such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana and prescription drugs."

Harris places the blame partly on the pressures of this stage of life.

"Divorce, loss of a job, loss of health, a lot of grief and loss issues," he said.  The good news, according to Harris, is that these older drug users are motivated to break their habit, and have a good success rate.

Some of the increase in drug use in this age group is due to their sheer numbers; an estimated 75 million people were born in the Baby Boom years between 1946 and 1964.  Still, some experts say population numbers alone don't explain all of the increase.

"We are concerned that it is going to get worse," said NIDA's Dowling, who adds that older adults metabolize drugs differently, and "even moderate levels of use can have more severe consequences."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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