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Older people are the fastest-growing group of cannabis users, as stigma fades and some seek an alternative to prescription drugs.
As attitudes towards cannabis shift, the fastest-growing group of users is over 50 – and marijuana’s popularity among seniors is beginning to change the American experience of old age.
Why are more seniors getting high? It might make more sense to ask: “Why not?” As adults reach retirement, they age out of drug tests and have far more time on their hands. Some feel liberated to abandon long-held proprieties.
Elegant vape pens and other attractive, discreet products have helped de stigmatize the drug among older Americans. “Legalization seems to make non-users seem a little less scared of it, and perhaps less judgmental,” says Jo, a 56-year-old cannabis user who preferred not to use her real name.
The seniors using cannabis today aren’t your parents’ grandparents. The generation that camped out at Woodstock is now in its seventies. They’ve been around grass long enough to realize it’s not going to kill them, and are more open to the possibility it will come with health benefits. (By contrast, in a survey of one, my 100-year-old grandmother recently said she had no interest in medical marijuana.)
Seniors’ affinity for weed is beginning to ripple across the US healthcare system. A 2016 study found that in states with access to medical marijuana, those using Medicare part D – a benefit primarily for seniors – received fewer prescriptions for other drugs to treat depression, anxiety, pain, and other chronic issues.
For the most part, scientific research has not confirmed marijuana as an effective treatment for these conditions. But proven or not, a number of seniors evidently prefer it to the medications they would otherwise be taking. A study published last year in in the Journal of the American Medical Association found opioid prescriptions for Medicare part D recipients dropped 14% after a state legalized medical marijuana – a hopeful sign amid the opioids crisis.
While some doctors have expressed concerns about seniors self-medicating with weed, virtually everyone agrees the public health consequences of opioids are far worse. And the most serious health concerns associated with marijuana, such as impaired brain development, tend to affect younger people.
For the industry, seniors’ newfound interest in cannabis is a business opportunity. The Colorado edibles company Wana Brands, among many others, sells cannabis products reminiscent of medicines familiar to seniors. Wana sells extended release capsules as well as products with different ratios of THC and CBD, which intoxicate users to different degrees and can have a variety of effects on ailments.
For someone who hasn’t seen a joint in 40 years, the modern dispensary can be a dizzying experience replete with dozens of products – topicals (lotions), tinctures, sprays – all promising to help you feel better, but also to get you stoned. Whether or not marijuana helps seniors to alleviate their conditions, many may enjoy a sense of control over their own wellbeing. Meanwhile, dispensaries in California and elsewhere cater to older clientele with discounts and shuttle busses. Dispensary owners like to brag about how many older women come in as evidence that they’re created an attractive and welcoming store.
It hasn’t escaped the pharmaceutical industry that marijuana could soon be seen as a viable replacement for many of its products. Perhaps someday soon it will be normal for seniors to pass their last decades in a cannabis-induced haze.