In England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there are now more than 200,000 opiate and crack cocaine users, aged 35 to 64. This is an increase in older drug users of 39% between 2010-11 and 2016-17.
Dubbed the ‘Trainspotting Generation’, many of these users first took heroin in the 1980s and 1990s. How did this epidemic happen? And what is life like now for older drugs users, addicted to heroin or crack cocaine for decades? Can you turn around a lifelong, destructive habit?
At Addiction Helper, we encourage anyone, of any age, to come forward for help with heroin addiction or crack cocaine addiction. We speak to people in their teens through to their 70s and 80s. There is always hope for change. Please start your recovery today by picking up the phone for an addictions assessment. Concerned family members are also welcome to call us, to find out about drug interventions, drug detox and drug rehab programmes.
The Trainspotting Generation – How Did the Heroin and Crack Epidemic Happen?
The 1996 film, ‘Trainspotting’, is based on the novel by Irvine Welsh. The plot centres around the main character, Mark ‘Rent Boy’ Renton, and his group of friends in Edinburgh. Most of the central characters are heroin addicts – part of the generation of young men and women who got addicted to heroin in the 1980s and 1990s. The film follows their chaotic lives in addiction, as well as Renton’s attempts to get clean and build a new life.
In a 2014 Home Office report on the heroin epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, clear explanations are given for the explosion of heroin and crack users at that time.
“Before the late 1970s, heroin was not used widely in the UK and crack was unheard of. Heroin use was confined largely to London and users were mainly middle class and relatively affluent (Parker et al., 1988). […] This changed in 1977–78 when a new supply route opened up from Iran and Pakistan (Pearson, 1987; Yates, 2002). This made heroin more available and affordable.”
The report also highlighted that smoking heroin was new at the time. “This had two crucial effects, both of which probably increased take up. Potential users put off by injection were no longer faced with that barrier and smoking heroin came with the myth that, unlike the injection-variety, it was non-addictive (Yates, 2002).”
Subsequently, heroin use began to be recorded in pockets outside of London. By the 1990s, there was a 10 to 20-fold increase in heroin use, as compared to the 1970s. In contrast to the middle class, wealthier users of the 1970s, new heroin users were primarily working class, young and unemployed.
The Home Office study found that heroin use spread mainly through networks of friends and relatives – rather than through aggressive dealer tactics, which are more common today.
Today’s older drugs users, addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, are the legacy of the 1980s and 1990s epidemic. After decades of drug addiction, the statistics paint a tragic picture of what life is like now for the Trainspotting Generation.
Heroin Deaths amongst Older Drug Users Today
Released in August 2018, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures for 2017 tell a very sad story about opiate users, as they age. Whilst 24 people under the age of 20 died from opiate poisoning or misuse in 2017, 531 people aged 30-39 died, peaking at 646 people between 40 and 49. A further 487 people aged 50-69 died.
In total, there were 1,164 deaths involving heroin and morphine in 2017. Of these, 1028 were people aged 30 and over. ONS reported that deaths involving heroin and morphine have more than doubled since 2012.
In their 2017 registrations data, ONS point to the heroin drought in 2010 and 2011 as one factor in the spike in heroin deaths between 2012 and 2015. The heroin drought was “followed by increased purity in heroin, thought to be one factor in increased overdoses.”
Cocaine Deaths amongst Older Drug Users
In 2017, cocaine deaths rose for the sixth year in a row. There were 432 deaths related to cocaine, compared with 371 in 2016. The Office for National Statistics is not able to distinguish the form of cocaine (powder or crack cocaine).
For both cocaine and heroin deaths, the 40-49-year-old age group have the most recorded deaths in 2017 – although cocaine-related deaths have a lower median age than heroin. Four people under the age of 20 died after taking cocaine, peaking at 158 people aged 30-39 and 146 people between 40 and 49. This drops to 55 people aged 50-69.
A Deep Dive into Drug Related Deaths
Responding to the increasing drug deaths, Public Health England held an inquiry. “[Their] report concluded that the factors responsible for the increase in drug misuse deaths are multiple and complex, including an ageing cohort of heroin users, many of whom started to use heroin in the 1980s and 1990s, who are now experiencing cumulative physical and mental health conditions that make them more susceptible to overdose.”
Public Health England then commissioned the Office for National Statistics to carry out a ‘deep dive’ into coroners’ records, relating to drug misuse deaths in 2014 and 2015. ONS examined 115 records across seven coroners’ areas in England. The most common characteristics in people who died from drugs were:
- single or divorced
- living alone
- prior history of drug use (of which 62% of the records indicated past heroin use)
- they were found having already died
- history of mental health issues
In only 16 out of the 115 cases, there were no past or current health problems recorded.
54% of all cases had a history of alcohol misuse.
29% had suffered from a chronic pain condition recently or in the past. Many were on repeat prescriptions for opioid analgesics, including tramadol and oxycodone. These drugs have a high risk of addiction and are now known to be ineffective for long-term pain relief.
There were 14 cases of deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism amongst intravenous drug users. 17 people had hepatitis. There were 20 cases of liver disease and 13 people with kidney disease. Cardiovascular disease was mentioned 43 times in coroners’ records.
In 62% of cases, the individual took the overdose that resulted in their death in their own home. 46 people were alone when they overdosed.
Hope for Older Drug Users – Addiction Treatment Works
Older drug users can and do recover from addiction when they are able to access specialist and intensive addiction treatment. Drug interventions, drug detox, drug rehab and counselling, rehab aftercare programmes and ongoing community support are pivotal in helping people to recover and stay well.
Public cuts to treatment budgets certainly haven’t helped older drug users to access help when they most need it. Nationwide, there’s strong evidence that where addiction treatment budgets fall, deaths from drug use increase.
Furthermore, the media often portrays long term addiction – particularly to heroin and crack cocaine – as a shameful or hopeless condition. This needs to change because it hides many inspiring stories of recovery. Addiction treatment is transformative for people of all ages. Recovering addicts go on to lead useful and positive lives. It isn’t acceptable or truthful to label all older drugs users as beyond help.
At Addiction Helper, we recommend specialist drug treatment for people of all ages. Whatever age you are, however long you’ve used drugs including heroin and crack cocaine, whatever you have done in addiction – we can help you find the right treatment to get well. Start your recovery journey today by calling the Addiction Helper Admissions team. There are very affordable drug detox and rehab programmes across the country. We believe you can change – it’s time to believe in yourself and get help.