While heroin use among young people has fallen by two thirds over the past 6 years, older heroin users are putting a greater strain on the UK’s drug treatment facilities.
This older generation of heroin addicts are in their 40s and 50s. Most have been using heroin since the 80s and 90s when the first wave of cheap heroin hit the UK. These people are not criminals, they have simply been eking out an existence as addicts.
According to new figures from the National Treatment Agency this group now accounts for around one third of people in treatment. These people are now facing rapidly deterioration health and need more help and treatment than their younger counterparts.
Along with their addiction, many older heroin users have health problems from years of neglecting their bodies. Many others have diseases spread by injection like hepatitis C. Older heroin users also have respiratory problems, health concerns caused by overdoses and heart conditions. This makes treating their addiction a lengthy and costly process.
While the cost of treating this group is relatively high, there is a silver lining. Most people who try drugs do so in their late teens or early twenties. That means people aged 40 and above are very unlikely to be trying drugs for the first time. Hence the rising number of older drug users entering treatment is due to an overall desire among them to get clean.
Part of this new motivation to break free from addiction may be due to the rising mortality rate of older heroin users. In 2001 there were 504 deaths of drug misuse over 40 years old. In 2011 there were 802 deaths. As these people age, their drug habit is catching up with them and making it much harder to sustain their current lifestyle.
While this has motivated many to start their recovery, the large influx of older people in recovery has put a massive strain on the UKs drug treatment system. There is simply not enough money or staff to handle the number of people who need treatment. The tough economy and budget cuts are making it even more difficult.
Worse still, most of the government funded treatment for heroin addiction goes to methadone. While this is a low cost medication, it is not solving the problem. Methadone does not cure heroin addiction, it simply takes the place of heroin. In essence, addicts are trading one addiction for another. Many more addicts simply use both heroin and methadone to get even higher.
The UK needs a comprehensive drug treatment program that focuses on effective treatment and breaking the cycle of addiction. Only then will it be able to help its aging population of addicts.