Meet the 'silver sniffers': the pensionables snorting and smoking the unmentionables

Escalating use of pills and powders will no longer be confined to the young. Sophie Goodchild reports on the coming drug age

Not so long ago they got their kicks from a glass of Dubonnet. But British pensioners will soon be routine consumers of recreational drugs, according to a leading government adviser.

Not so long ago they got their kicks from a glass of Dubonnet. But British pensioners will soon be routine consumers of recreational drugs, according to a leading government adviser.

Professor Gerry Stimson, an authority on drug safety, believes that the ageing drug user, or "silver sniffer", will become a significant figure on the British drugs scene in the next three decades, thanks to the growing popularity of illegal pills and powders.

He says that, although drugs are still associated with the young, today's generation of users will continue their habit well into old age. "This generation of what I call 'silver sniffers', people in their 50s, 60s, 70s, will be the first people to have grown up with drug use as fairly commonplace and will continue to use drugs," said Professor Stimson, who has 40 years' experience on drug and alcohol issues and is emeritus professor at Imperial College London.

Drug-taking in Britain is already commonplace for a whole generation of young people and these are predicted to become the pensioner pleasure-seekers of the future. Figures from the 2002-03 British Crime Survey show that 12 per cent of men and women aged from 16 to 59 said they had taken an illicit drug in the previous year. The average age for young people trying drugs for the first time has also fallen.

Drug treatment agencies also say that they are dealing with addicts from the same family where as many as three or four generations of relatives, from grandchildren to grandparents, have used drugs.

Professor Stimson said that society may change the way it views drug use when faced with the prospect of increasing numbers of people moving into old age using illicit drugs. "If it's only young people doing it then you can dismiss it as a passing fad, but there is an interesting prospect of this generation of people moving into older age who are using illicit drugs and this will change the whole demographics of society," he said.

He describes the phenomenon of the "silver sniffer" generation in an article on the future of recreational drug use in Britain commissioned by the drugs charity Drugscope.

Other predictions for 2034 include scientists developing drugs that have similar highs to illegal drugs currently in circulation but which are safer to use. This would involve rearranging the molecules in drugs, especially opiates, so that people would not become addicted.

Illegal drugs are classified according to how damaging they are to the human body. But Professor Stimson said it may be hard in future to classify drugs. "Illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine may still be around but they may be seen as the old, clumsy, dirty drugs and the newer drugs will be the smarter, tailored drugs which are not so messy."

Pharmaceutical companies may also develop new ways of delivering both medicinal drugs as well as legalised pleasure-enhancing drugs directly into the system through impregnated clothing.

'Cannabis was jolly good for my eyesight'

Sue Arnold, columnist for The Independent, is partially sighted and discovered that smoking cannabis improved her eyesight. She stopped taking it after it triggered a psychotic episode in her son.

"I'm more sceptical and scathing. It's jolly good for my eyesight but I don't smoke it now. I've been deterred because of what it does to people. They get aggressive and ratty and depressed. It's not the same stuff now either. The stuff we grew in window boxes isn't what we smoke now. Skunk is just chemicals.

"It's a complete no-no - I don't touch it. But all my friends still do it. It's as simple as smoking a Marlboro Light. Old habits die hard. My mother-in-law still drinks crème de menthe; my mother drinks gin and lime. No one drinks those any more but you get used to things.

"I smoked it at university and all my kids smoke it, but since one of them had a very bad experience I'm not so cheery about it now."

'Did everyone who took drugs in the 60s stop?'

William Donaldson, 69, is the creator of Henry Root and the author of other satirical books. From time to time, he uses crack.

"What is a typical 65-year-old - Mick Jagger or Geoffrey Howe? Do you think everybody who took drugs in the 1960s suddenly stopped? People don't change. What you did at 25 you do at 65. At what point do you suddenly change? The heavy users in the 1960s are old men now - they won't have given up.

"The last drug I took - and I must stress it's a drug from hell - was crack. Never take it. You become a complete lunatic. I used to take it at least twice a week. Of course it's nice - people wouldn't take it if it wasn't. But it becomes vile. I've done some ridiculous things on crack.

"In 30 years' time it will be seen as ridiculous that dangerous drugs were taken out of the hands of the medical profession and put in the hands of criminals."

'Long-term side effects are less of a worry'

Howard Marks, 59, Britain's most infamous drug dealer, still regularly smokes cannabis.

"I find my drug use remains pretty steady. I get a bus pass in August but I won't be stopping taking drugs. I think this 'silver sniffer' thing must be happening already - or maybe I'm 30 years ahead of the game. It's happened to me and most of my friends - a lot of us still continue to take drugs despite our age. Whether it's good or bad depends entirely on the individual.

"There is actually less of a stigma against older people using drugs than for younger people. There aren't any worries about getting expelled from school or losing your job. Long-term side effects are less of a worry because at my age the long term is the short term."

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