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Illicit Drug Use

Prevalence’s of illicit drug use in people aged 50 years and over from two surveys (2012)

V. Fahmy, S.L. Hatch, M.Hotopf and R. Stewart



Although we know a lot about alcohol use in older people, little is known about the use of illicit drugs in people over 50 years. This research looked at how common illicit drug use is among people aged 50 and over in South East (SE) London and England nationally and also whether there were differences between those aged 50-64 years and people over 65 years.

How was the study conducted?

Information on illicit drug use was gathered from two surveys: The 2007 English Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS), which studied mental health across England, and the South East London Community Health (SELCoH) survey, carried out between 2008-2010 in the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. Both surveys asked participants whether or not they had used the following drugs in their life time: cannabis, amphetamine, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, heroin, LSD and tranquilisers. Participants were also asked whether they had used the drugs in the last year. The APMS also asked about the use of magic mushrooms, amyl nitrate, methadone, anabolic steroids and solvent inhalation.

What did we find?

Use of all types of drugs was more common in SE London than in England overall, with cannabis being the most commonly used drug. In both surveys people aged 50-64 years were more likely to have used cannabis in the previous year and in their lifetime than people aged 65 and over.

It was rare for those ages 65 years and older to have ever used any drugs, but cannabis and tranquilisers were the drugs they were most likely to have used. Those in SE London were more likely to have used drugs in their lifetime than in England overall.

We also compared our results with APMS surveys from previous years to see if there has been a change in the proportion of people aged 50 years and over using illicit drugs. In the general population, there seems to have been an increase over time in the amount of people over 50 years using drugs, particularly cannabis.


We found that illicit drug use, particularly cannabis is increasing among people aged 50 years and over, so more research is required to investigate how this may be related to long-term health outcomes in older people.


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