(The Hill) — Seniors, and not the high-school kind, are the fastest-growing population of cannabis users, a trend that illustrates what a long, strange trip the legalization movement has been.
The share of over-65 Americans who have used marijuana nearly tripled in a decade, from 11% in 2009 to 32% in 2019, according to a respected federal survey on drug use. More than half of the 60-64 demographic reported cannabis use, another sharp increase.
Cannabis consumption among older adults reached 35% in 2021. But the pandemic affected the survey methodology, researchers said, possibly skewing the results.
The graying of cannabis culture signals broadening social acceptance of marijuana, which is now available for recreational use in 23 states. It is also a generational story about the aging baby boomers, a generation that grew up in an era of psychotropic experimentation.
Cannabis use, for many older Americans, is less about getting high and more about getting sleep. And pain relief. And calm.
“There are many things that I would not do anymore if I didn’t have cannabis,” said Daniel Uthe, 61, who lives and works on a Wisconsin farm. “I wouldn’t do it because it hurts too much.”
Cannabis users find that rolling the occasional joint can blunt pain from arthritic joints, old broken bones and aching backs and necks. Uthe smokes “a little bit recreationally, maybe once a month, but way more for pain control.”
Older Americans remain far less likely than younger adults to use cannabis regularly. Roughly 5% of over-65 Americans and 10% of the 60-64 age group reported using marijuana in the past month, as of 2021, compared to 24% of adults 25 or younger.
Uthe suspects that polls understate the true number of older adults who consume cannabis. Some skittish boomers who use weed “are not admitting it on surveys,” he said.
“Since 2009, we’ve seen a big increase in cannabis use prevalence across all age groups, all demographic groups, with older people participating in that, kind of for the first time,” said William Kerr, senior scientist at the nonprofit Alcohol Research Group, who also studies cannabis.
Older Americans’ embrace of cannabis brings them more in line with the rest of the nation. Half or more of adults in every other age group now say they have tried marijuana at least once, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
This year, for the first time, Gallup pollsters found that half of Americans have tried marijuana. That figure comes from a long-running poll, which found that 34% of adults had tried marijuana in 1999 and 4% in 1969.
Young adults, raised in a relatively pot-friendly milieu, are leading the charge. More than two-fifths of adults ages 19-30 now use cannabis at least on occasion, according to federal data. Cannabis users may soon be the majority among young adults in several states where marijuana has been legalized.
Older adults have been slower to accept legal weed, let alone smoke it. As recently as last fall, only 30% of Americans older than 75 supported legalizing recreational marijuana, according to a Pew Research survey.
That quotient reflects the views of the silent generation, Americans born between 1928 and 1945, a group that came of age before recreational weed had taken hold.
“It’s really the silent generation and every generation before that,” Kerr said. “They weren’t exposed to it when they were young and had negative opinions about it for many years.”
Boomers bring a different perspective. In the Pew survey, 53% of Americans in the 65-74 age group supported recreational marijuana, close to the national average.
Many boomers entered adulthood in the 1970s, a high-water mark of marijuana use among young adults. In 1979, 36% of Americans ages 18 to 25 said they had smoked pot in the past month.
“As you were going through high school and college, it was there,” said Brenden Dougherty, CEO of MDbio, a plant-based wellness company. “There was a segment of folks who used it, tried it, and a segment of folks who were around it.”
Marijuana use plunged in the 1980s, amid the federal war on drugs, and rose only fitfully in the decades that followed. Many boomers abstained from cannabis in those years. It was mostly illegal, hard to procure and risky to use.
Even as states began to legalize marijuana for recreational use, starting with Washington and Colorado in 2012, the generational stigma endured among older Americans.
“Some of them were completely against it, even up until five or 10 years ago. Completely against it, never used it,” said Kimberly Cargile, CEO of A Therapeutic Alternative in Sacramento, Calif., and co-owner of seven other dispensaries.
“The conversation really changed when cannabis became mainstream, and their children started educating them about it.”
The advent of recreational dispensaries with counter service and daytime hours was a game-changer for boomers, many of whom winced at the thought of meeting a dealer in a fast-food parking lot at twilight.
“It’s become this craft-beer industry,” Dougherty said. “All of the sudden, the boomer generation is saying, ‘I can trust this now.’”
Cargile’s Sacramento dispensary caters to an older clientele. Many customers are boomers, beset with aches and pains, looking for natural medicines to supplant prescription drugs, or to wean themselves off alcohol.
“Just about anybody over 45 has some kind of chronic pain,” said Cargile, who is 43 and who introduced her mother-in-law to therapeutic cannabis. “That’s our demographic. I say, ‘We’re the place you can bring your mom, and your mom’s mom.’”
Older cannabis users bring their own sensibilities to the marketplace. They are more likely than younger customers to choose edibles, tinctures, capsules or salves, as opposed to vaping or smoking, according to Cargile and others in the industry.
Researchers don’t know much about how cannabis affects older Americans, partly because elderly users have been too small of a group to study.
“With older adults, I think the risks are a little bit unknown,” said Stephanie Zellers, a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at the University of Helsinki. She said future research might assess whether older cannabis users face elevated risks of falls or emergency room visits.
By comparison to younger cannabis users, seniors are relatively risk averse. They like the security of a set dose, and they tend to choose lower doses. They don’t like surprises.
“They care about potency. They care about safety,” said Michael Sofis, director of research at Cannabis Public Policy Consulting, a group that works with states.
Boomers may be relative lightweights, but they have proven resilient cannabis customers. Between late 2022 and mid-2023, a period of rising debt and nagging inflation, young-adult customers trimmed their monthly cannabis budgets by 17%, Sofis said. Cannabis spending by seniors dipped by only 2%.
Uthe, the Wisconsin farmer, lives on an island of illegal weed, largely surrounded by states where it is legal: Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota.
Among upper Midwesterners of Uthe’s generation, the old Reefer Madness stigma “is kind of looked at like a joke now,” he said. His pot-smoking friends “are basically home growers, like it used to be back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”