In 2013, Kentucky, Rhode Island, and Nevada had some of the highest rates of death from opioid overdoses, and they also had some of the country’s highest unemployment rates. A series of studies suggests that this joblessness might have been—at least in part—contributing to the high rates of drug addiction.
A National Bureau of Economic Research paper I wrote about a few months ago found that as the unemployment rate increases by 1 percentage point in a given county, the opioid-death rate rises by 3.6 percent, and emergency-room visits rise by 7 percent. Now, a new meta-analysis lends further evidence to the idea that when people lose their jobs, they are more likely to turn to illegal drug use.
For this study, published in June in the International Journal of Drug Policy, researchers from the Netherlands looked at 28 studies published between 1990 and 2015 in 12 different countries, and found that both economic recessions and individual unemployment increase illegal drug use. For the most part, they found, it was because people were so psychologically distressed by their job loss that they turned to drugs to cope with their frustrations.
Here’s what one ethnographic study they looked at found:
... members of the social network of drug users in Buenos Aires described that the daily reality of drug users became overwhelming and unbearable after the start of the 2001–2003 recession. Drug consumption was seen as a way to escape and forget this reality. Additionally, women without a history of drug use reported taking benzodiazepines (with or without medical prescription) to “calm down” and decrease anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and despair.
Surprisingly, the researchers did not find that the unemployed individuals stopped using drugs because they lacked money to buy them. Instead, people in dire financial straits simply switched to cheaper drugs.