In the summer of 2018, flippant cocaine memes went viral across social media, suggesting a worryingly cavalier attitude toward the dangerous drug. But a whole year has passed, and it now appears that cocaine’s online glory did not manifest in the behaviors of 18- to 25-year-olds around the country. The powerfully addictive drug was thought to be on the brink of a renaissance, but according to the results of a new national survey, younger generations are less interested in it than we thought.
Numbers released this week as part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Survey on Drug Use and Health show that young adults between 18 and 25 have significantly reduced their cocaine use compared to 2017. Only a relatively small fraction of the population uses cocaine to begin with, and the proportion is getting smaller. According to the survey, 1.9 percent of young adults (665,000 people) reported cocaine use in the past month in 2017, but that number dropped to to 1.5 percent in 2018 (524,000 people). Those small changes amount to over one hundred thousand people who have decided to skip cocaine this year.
"Declines in use of an addictive substance by this age group will likely have benefits for decades to come."
The fact that 18-25s (who are somewhere between millennials and post-millennials, generationally speaking) are trending away from cocaine use is significant, explains Matthew Johnson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins who studies the behavioral economics of drugs.
“These are the ages when experimentation or more occasional use often gets locked in as a longer term addiction,” Johnson tells Inverse “So declines in use of an addictive substance by this age group will likely have benefits for decades to come.”
Johnson, who was not associated with this survey, explains that the macro view of cocaine use shows that it’s declining — and has been doing so gradually since 2005. That decline is largely driven by big decreases in the amount of people under 18 using the drug, he adds.
In the past decade, however, some year-to-year differences have stirred up reports that the drug was on the verge of a renaissance, especially amongst 18-to-25s.
In 2015, SAMHSA released a report claiming that cocaine “may be reemerging as a public health concern in the United States.” That report noted that new cocaine users had surged by 61 percent between 2013 and 2015 (a total of 610,000 new users country-wide) and added that cocaine use had increased in 16 states.
In November 2018, the Drug Enforcement Administration released a National Drug Threat Assessment that said “the cocaine threat has rebounded,” but that statement was made based on the drug’s availability. Specifically, the report noted spikes in cocaine production in Colombia, which they believe may translate to more use in the United States.
In August 2019, a court in Mexico City recently ruled cocaine use legal in a single case, so the drug has definitely been a subject of focus for legislators inside and outside the US.
SAMHSA has shown, however, that between 2016 and 2017, there really was an increase in the amount of young adults who reported using cocaine in the past 12 months, jumping from 1.6 percent (552,000 people) to 1.9 percent (665,000 people). But this year, things took a turn back to the lowest numbers of cocaine use since 2015.
Why have millennials dropped off of cocaine use in 2018? Johnson says we can’t know for sure. But he does note that drug popularity tends to cycle over the decades, falling out of favor as the risks of using it become more apparent.
In cocaine’s case, using the drug stops the brain from re-uptaking dopamine, which not only results in its famous high but also makes it highly addictive, since it wreaks havoc on our natural reward pathways. But it’s also associated with an increased risk of other health conditions that may not be apparent at first, like sexually transmitted infections.
Johnson says that young adults now may just be seeing the effects that cocaine has had on other generations, which could be one reason they’re not using it as much as in previous years. Social media may be helping that information spread; even though the internet may be a convenient place to buy illicit drugs, it’s also a quick way to see the consequences of abuse.
“Also, with the prominence of the internet and social media, a post-modern type of effect might be at play, where today’s young folks have more ready access to the lessons learned by all those previous generations,” says Johnson. “The nitty gritty stuff that used to be conveyed by only word of mouth is now readily available on the internet, so maybe today’s youth are better able to learn from the mistakes of those in the past.”
As the country already grapples with a number of public health threats, like mental health crises, here at least is some good news. As more young adults decide not to try cocaine, it may send a message to future generations too.