Back in the Habit: Baby Boomers and Drugs

"I don't want to say its trendy, but it's an epidemic," one boomer said.

Aug. 6, 2012— -- Jodi is a feisty 50-year-old with five children and an infectious laugh. Despite years of living in the Florida sun, you won't mistake her origins; the New York accent comes out loud and clear. There's something else from her youth that Jodi, and an increasing number of other baby boomers, have had trouble leaving behind -- illicit drugs.

"Our generation is saturated with this. I don't want to say it's trendy, but it's an epidemic," said Jodi, who wants to keep her last name confidential.

It turns out that those who came of age in the marijuana-happy, acid-dropping, cocaine-snorting 1960s and '70s are finding their way back to drugs.

In 2010, nearly 2.4 million people ages 50 to 59 said they had abused prescription or illegal drugs within the past month; more than double that of 2002, according to data from the National Institutes of Health.

Emergency rooms nationwide are seeing more patients age 55 and older for reactions to cocaine, heroin and especially marijuana.

Visits to the emergency room for marijuana abuse, for example, jumped 200% from 2004 to 2009 in this age group, according to Gayathri Dowling, PhD, the acting chief of the science policy branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

"We knew a lot of baby boomers had used drugs in their youth," said Dowling, "That is a risk factor. The younger you use, the more likely you are to have problems later."

Dowling says boomers grew up in a culture where drug use "became less stigmatized."

Fifty-two-year-old Bee, who lives in the Boston area, agrees. She admits to heavy marijuana use in her late teens and early 20s, but then she kicked the habit. Bee, who also asked ABCNews not to use her last name, started again in her 40's, while dating a man who liked to light up.

"If you've done it before," said Bee, "it's easier to start again."

She's now trying to quit, and has been mostly clean for six months. "I kept trying to make myself stop," said Bee. "I was spending all my extra money on it."

For Jodi the moment of truth came earlier this year. She overdosed while trying to break her drug habit, and was rushed to the hospital.

"I finally reached the point where I said, The kids are going to find me dead, or I will be arrested," she said.

Jodi was abusing pain killers and anti-anxiety drugs, heading to the streets to buy Didlaudid, Ativan, Xanax and Roxicet illegally. She began taking some of the drugs legitimately after two surgeries, but it quickly escalated into an all-consuming habit.

"I would be sending kids off to school and then calling this guy [who had drugs], saying, Meet me at the gas station."

As a teen she says she "tried everything," from Quaaludes to LSD to heroin.

"There was nothing I was afraid of," she said. Although many years have passed since then, "we have the euphoric recall; we tend to forget what happens after that."

Treated at the Hanley Center, an addiction recovery facility in West Palm Beach, Fla., Jodi has been off drugs for four months.

The center opened a boomer unit three years ago. Juan Harris, the clinical director of boomer treatment, says they are packed. Right now it's a 24-bed facility, with plans to expand to 40 beds.

"Alcohol addiction is [still] the primary substance for people age 50, but it's going down," said Harris. "There are more and more people over 50 abusing more illicit stuff, such as cocaine, heroin, marijuana and prescription drugs."

Harris places the blame partly on the pressures of this stage of life. "Divorce, loss of a job, loss of health, a lot of grief and loss issues," he said. "The good news, according to Harris, is that these older drug users are motivated to break their habit, and have a good success rate."

Some of the increase in drug use in this age group is due to their sheer numbers; an estimated 75 million people were born in the Baby Boom years between 1946 and 1964. Still, some experts say population numbers alone don't explain all of the increase.

"We are concerned that it is going to get worse," said NIDA's Dowling, who adds that older adults metabolize drugs differently, and "even moderate levels of use can have more severe consequences."

Dowling says relatives and even doctors don't often think of drug use if an older adult is acting strangely. "You are more likely to ask your teenage patient than your 50-year-old patient about any drug they may be using."

The government is trying to educate doctors to change that mentality.

For Bee and Jodi, they continue to go to regular support group meetings to help them stay off drugs.

As Jodi puts it, "I went through things I would never want my children to go through. I want to give them a message of recovery."