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By Ethan Wolff-Mann
March 2, 2016
JOHANNES EISELE—AFP/Getty Images

It seems sort of obvious that bad times might result in more drug abuse, as people suffering from economic despair self-medicate. A new report shows just how true this idea is in general, while also shedding light on the rare instances in which the usage of certain drugs picks up when the economy is booming.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the University of Colorado Denver published a working paper showing an undeniable inverse relationship between drug abuse and the economy overall. According the data, when one sinks, the other rises.

“There is strong evidence that economic downturns lead to increases in substance use disorders involving hallucinogens and prescription pain relievers,” they wrote in the report, which was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

One thing that makes this study unique is the fact that most of the research in this field had focused on mostly alcohol and cannabis. Instead, this study deals expressly with illicit drugs other than marijuana. The data shows that while drug use in general increases during difficult economic times, some drugs become more popular when the economy is thriving. “LSD use is significantly procyclical,” the report states, meaning that it people use it more in good times. On the other hand, drugs like Ecstasy are “countercyclical.”

The main takeaway is that “there is strong evidence that economic downturns lead to increases in substance use disorders involving hallucinogens and prescription pain relievers.”

What’s most alarming is that, according to the researchers, drug treatment policies get significantly cut during economic downturns, which seems like precisely the wrong move at the wrong time.

“Our results are important for understanding optimal policy responses to economic booms and busts,” they write. “Most debates over public funding for drug treatment, penalties for illicit drug use, and other drug policy levers ignore the role of economic conditions. Our results highlight the perils of this omission.”

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