What is Behind the Changing Trends in Drug Abuse?

group people taking pills

A look back through history shows that patterns of drug abuse in the U.S. never stay the same for long. In the 1950s, tranquilizers like Miltowns and plenty of alcohol were being abused. In the 1960s, it was marijuana, speed, and hallucinogens like LSD. In the 1970s, there was lots more marijuana followed by a flourishing cocaine market in the 1980s. In the second half of the 1980s, crack cocaine cut a destructive swath through urban areas.

In the 1990s, while overall drug use numbers had dropped, increasing use of heroin, methamphetamine and club drugs like Ecstasy began to be seen. In the new millennium, the abuse of prescription drugs took off, followed by heroin as easy sources of pills began to be shut down after 2010. Methamphetamine spread from the West Coast through the Midwest. And as marijuana began to be more widely legalized for medical or recreational use, its use began to climb after 2007. The abuse of prescription stimulants such as Adderall or Ritalin also began to grow after many young people who were prescribed these drugs shared them with their schoolmates.

Now, Heroin Ravages the Midwest and Northeast

Due to restricted prescribing of opiate painkillers, changes in formulation to abuse-deterrent pills and a much greater availability of heroin, this decade has seen heroin use ravage small towns in the Midwest and Northeast states beyond anything anyone ever expected. States like Ohio, Vermont, and Minnesota were unprepared for this onslaught of heroin. In 2014, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin noted that two million dollars worth of heroin arrived in tiny, sparsely-populated Vermont each week. Also that 80 percent of the state’s inmates were there because of drug crimes.

Some medical and rehab professionals call drug addiction is a disease. If it is, why would there be these patterns to drug use? Why would drug abuse begin to dip in the mid-1980s and continue through the first few years of the 1990s?

A New View of the Cause of the Problem

Jill Littrell, Ph.D. and Associate Professor at the Georgia State University offered a different view of the cause of the problem. In an article titled Always a Mystery: Why do Drugs Come and Go? she suggests that the waxing and waning of drug abuse trends are supplier-driven more than they are symptomatic of consumer demand. She cites the recently-published book Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by former Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Quinones. The book describes the rise of opiate addiction that followed innovative and highly successful marketing tactics used by Purdue Pharma, the manufacturers and sellers of OxyContin. They succeeded in convincing tens of thousands of doctors that OxyContin was not addictive and should be prescribed freely for chronic pain, a use never approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Twenty years later, eighteen billion pills of opiate pain medication are distributed among Americans in one year (2012). Overdoses of these pills kill more than one American per hour. As described in Dreamland, an innovative network of Mexican drug dealers take heroin to the suburbs and as the pills become abuse-resistant and money runs out, heroin offers a more available and cheaper solution.

The Opposite View of the Problem

On the other hand, many people have gone on record to declare that it is the “insatiable” American appetite for drugs that drives drug manufacture and trafficking. Is that the true story?

Depressed addict girl sitting on the floor.
“I did know before I ever did narcotics that they were bad for me. I knew they could be addictive, but at 15 years old, I had no idea what the hell the word ‘addiction’ meant.” 

In the Cape Cod Times, heroin user Katie Honan describes her life as an addict. She said, “I did know before I ever did narcotics that they were bad for me. I knew they could be addictive, but at 15 years old, I had no idea what the hell the word ‘addiction’ meant.” And of course, her dealer didn’t tell her. He just wanted to sell the product.

A plague like the situation we have in this country can be created. And it has been. What must happen now is helping those who are trapped in addiction to recover and preventing drug abuse among young people by educating them openly, thoroughly and honestly on the dangers.

For now, the international Narconon network of drug rehab centers will continue doing what it does best: helping people recover from the destructive effects of addiction and rebuilding the life skills that will help those individuals maintain sobriety for the remainder of their lives.

(To preserve privacy, the photo does not show the people featured in this article.)


Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.