Busted! The rise (and highs) of the silver snorters

Cocaine. the best way to turn a large fortune into a small fortune. Rap Genuis

Over recent weeks a number of stories have emerged in the mainstream media concerning the extra-curricular activities of powerful members of society. This week the allegations have been made against TV cook and personality Nigella Lawson – with all the feverish prurience that only the dishing of such dirt against a celebrity can provide.

Last week the big story of bad behaviour in elevated circles was about Paul Flowers, methodist minister and former head of the Co-op Bank, whose fall from grace has been as precipitous as it has been unedifying.

A particularly tetchy Prime Minister’s Question Time last week saw David Cameron trying to score points off Labour for its association with Flowers while the opposition benches repeatedly alluded to speculation surrounding the prime minister’s alleged drug-taking past.

That politicians, bankers and indeed other members of the “elite” have been found to use illegal substances should be no real surprise. Yet these stories remain news because they contain some of the hallmarks of what makes a story newsworthy.

Nigella Lawson. Yui Mok/PA Wire

In his excellent study, Law and Order News, Steve Chibnall demonstrates how news reporting – particularly in the area of crime and criminality – is dictated by the professional imperatives of journalism. In effect, choices are made about what is “newsworthy”.

According to Chibnall this choice is frequently governed by the need to search for sensational, unusual or dramatic occurrences. They deal with the present “facts” and limited historical context with shades of grey eliminated. Stories are often dramatic and in the case of Lawson and Flowers they are personalised.

Tabloid sensation

There is frequently an element of voyeurism in the reportage, but new angles are constantly sourced. Commentary is restricted to a privileged few and thus only a narrow spectrum of conventional viewpoints makes it to print.

The Lawson and Flowers stories have followed this trajectory, with dramatised and personalised accounts titillating our sensibilities and new twists and turns emerging on a daily basis.

Paul Flowers: fall from grace. PA Wire

Yet the main trigger to these issues becoming public and in effect one of the main bones of contention has been around the issue of illicit substance misuse – and, to a great extent, the alleged misuse by people who have reached an age where, society says, they ought to know better.

The question remains, therefore, to what extent are high-profile “silver snorters” statistical anomalies? In other words, we might ask how many over-50s are current or recent users of illicit drugs. A recent report in The Times which suggested that drug use in the over 50s was “soaring”. Similarly a headline from the Independent last year questioned how many over 50s have “One foot in the Rave”.

Recent research on this topic by the Institute of Psychiatry at Kings College London published in the journal Age and Ageing in April 2012 demonstrated that the use of some illicit drugs, but particularly cannabis, has increased noticeably in mid-and late-life.

Researchers on findings from the 2007 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey amongst 50-64 year olds, alongside secondary analysis of this survey from 1993, 2000 and 2007 among the same age range, as well as secondary analysis of the 2000 and 2007 survey amongst 65-74 year supplemented by primary analysis from the 2008-10 South East London Community Health Survey.

Closet consumption

Accurate measures of drug prevalence, because of the hidden nature of the problem, are notoriously elusive, but on one level, it stands to reason that drug use in the over-50s is on the increase. Drug prevalence is generally measured in terms of lifetime use and recent use (use on average once a month within the previous 12 months).

Writing in the Oxford Handbook of Criminology, the acclaimed drugs researcher Nigel South highlights how according to the best available estimates, drug use in the UK has risen steadily since the 1960s, peaking around 2005. Since 2005 drug use has levelled off and the most recent findings from the CSEW show a gradual decline in levels of drug prevalence.

Keef: poster-boy for over-indulgence. Yui Mok/PA

These long-term trends mean that over forthcoming decades lifetime prevalence measures will inevitably rise as the 20 to 30-year-olds (the age when drug use peaks for most regular users) of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s will be the 60+ year-olds of 2010s, 2020s and 2030s.

It is, though, the past month use that provides a clearer indication of recent drug trends. Here the picture as to whether more over-50s are using drugs is less clear. The data from the national Annual Psychiatric Morbidity Survey shows that 1.8% of 50-64 year olds surveyed and 0.4% of 65+ year olds surveyed reported use of cannabis within the last year. In the London-based survey the figures are 9% of 50-64 year olds decreasing to 1.1% (n=176) 65+ year olds.

If we look at the figures for crack cocaine – one of the drugs that Flowers is alleged to have taken – then the numbers are even smaller as we might expect, with only 0.2% of 50-64 year olds in the London survey reporting any use. There is some possibility that current drug users in the 50-64 age range will continue to use drugs as they enter the 65+ group in recent years, and relatively low national prevalence figures may mask what could be serious localised problems.

But overall, on the data we have available, there is no suggestion that we are about to witness an epidemic of drug use for those in or approaching retirement. Instead, in the over-50s, it is more likely that the recreational activities of their youth may be casting a long shadow, as the prime minister was not so subtly reminded.