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WETZSTEIN: Adult abusers face drug effects

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

Before summer fades completely, I want to revisit a news item that may have blown by you.

It's about how nearly 3 million of our aging baby boomers are still potheads or drug abusers after all these years.

In an unprecedented report, the federal government said that among persons aged 50 to 59, the number who used drugs in the last year jumped from about 5 percent in 2002 to 9.4 percent in 2007.

Marijuana is the top drug of choice, followed by "misused" prescription drugs, especially painkillers.

Why does anyone care about the Mary Jane habits of the middle-aged? Well, the government worries about escalating health care costs.

Smoking — whether it's tobacco or cannabis — is linked to heart attacks and respiratory illnesses. In addition, age-related physiological, psychological and social changes make older people "more vulnerable to the detrimental effects of illicit drug use," said the Aug. 19 report issued by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Since the number of middle-aged drug users is expected to grow as more of the Woodstock generation enters their 50s, the health care system would be wise to routinely screen this group for hidden drug problems. That way they can be counseled or referred for treatment, said Peter Delany, director of the Office of Applied Studies at SAMHSA.

Honestly, though, when I read this report, my concern was for the kids.

Parents are supposed to be the pot police, the people who tell you crack is whack and ground you for a month if you disobey. But if dear old Dad or cool Aunt Alice are still toking up, they are sending the message that drugs are OK. Kids may hear warnings about drugs from other adults, but those words won't shake off the sight of a trusted elder expertly blowing smoke.

Here are two more points to consider.

Research shows that our brains keep maturing into our mid-20s and drugs like marijuana mess with that maturation process.

Drug use changes the brain, especially when people start using as teenagers, said John Walters, the drug czar in the George W. Bush administration, now executive vice president of the Hudson Institute think tank.

The SAMHSA report shows that for millions of people, drug use was not "a phase they passed through," Mr. Walters said. Using drugs as a teen turned into a lifelong struggle, he said.

And if you still doubt that decades of drug use is a problem, here are some characteristics of middle-aged drug users: They are overwhelmingly male. They also are unmarried, unemployed (due to disability), drink and smoke, have low education, and suffered from depression in the last year. Party on, dudes.

My second point is that when family elders expose their youth to drugs, it's called intergenerational drug abuse.

"She wasn't the one and the same anymore," said Raymond Vaughn, 34, a Baltimore college student whose mother started using drugs when he was 12. He told his story this summer at a conference sponsored by the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore and Mario's Do Right Foundation.

As Mr. Vaughn's mother's substance use evolved (he believes she smoked pot in the 1970s as the "gateway" to cocaine and heroin), and with his father already deceased, Mr. Vaughn anchored his life to his grandmother. But without strong parents in his life, he still "ran the streets" and ended up in jail for a while. He also became an unwed father.

It was Mr. Vaughn's son who helped him see beyond a world where moms get high and people hustle for a living. "I had a son to think about," he said. "He wanted to go to work with me."

Today, Mr. Vaughn says his mom is "clean as a whistle." His advice to other adult children of drug users is "talk about it" and realize "it's not a demon you can fight by yourself."

As for graybeard druggies — can they change their ways?

Yes, Mr. Walters says, absolutely.

"If you think there aren't miracles today, go to a treatment center," he said.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.