This report comes from a running, four-decade-long study of drug, tobacco and alcohol use from the University of Michigan. This most recent iteration shows that people in their 40s and 50s used far more drugs in their youth than do people in their teens and 20s today.
“The proportion of Americans in their 40s and 50s who have experience with illicit drugs is quite shocking,” says Lloyd Johnston, a research scientist at the University of Michigan and the lead investigator on the study. “It’s a great majority.”
Not counting marijuana, over 70 percent of people in their 50s have used illegal drugs in their lifetimes. Including marijuana, the proportion soars to about 85 percent of people in their 50s. Back when these people were in college, nearly half of them were using illegal drugs compared to around 40 percent of college-aged adults today.
In fact, young people have been increasingly shunning psychoactive substances for a while now. Cigarette use is at an all-time low, with 20.5 percent of college students saying they smoked in 2015 compared to 44.5 percent in 1999.
“Maybe the most important of all is the decline in narcotic drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin and so forth,” Johnston says. Use of prescription opioids by college students has dropped from 8.7 percent in 2003 to 3.3 percent in 2015. “That’s despite the fact that we know from the news that the use and misuse of narcotic drugs is a growing problem in the country,” Johnston says.
The reason is not completely clear, Johnston says, but it probably has to do with young people learning to be wary. “When someone sees a substance is dangerous, they tend to avoid it,” he says. “And one of the things we’ve seen is an increased in perceived risk for a number of drugs.”
But when it comes …