People over 50 are the fastest-growing group of cannabis users. As journalist Alex Halperin pointed out in The Guardian, “The generation that camped out at Woodstock is now in its seventies.” Seniors likely have a wide variety of personal reasons for integrating cannabis into their lives, or continuing to use it as they age, but some trends are apparent. For many of this age group, cannabis is not an unfamiliar or frightening drug. The removal of restrictions on medical and recreational cannabis also invites more elders to the table. “Legalization seems to make non-users seem a little less scared of it, and perhaps less judgmental,” one 56-year-old cannabis user said.
The cannabis industry is not ignorant of the popularity of cannabis among the older market demographic. Stylish vape pens make the drug more palatable for some and, in California, some dispensaries offer seniors discounts and run shuttle buses to bring them in to shop.
Some seniors are using cannabis to manage pain and to replace other medicines. And, seniors’ use of marijuana is affecting their use of other drugs, both medicinal and recreational. A 2016 study found people using Medicare part D (who are usually seniors) in states with medical marijuana were given fewer prescriptions for other drugs for issues like pain, anxiety, depression and chronic ailments. In 2019, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) research revealed Medicare part D recipients’ opioid prescriptions dropped 14% when their state of residence made medical use of cannabis legal.
Seniors’ intake of other recreational drugs is also affected by cannabis use, in some cases. In 2019, researchers found, following legalization in Washington state, there were significant increases in simultaneous cannabis and alcohol use among people 50 and older. A 2020 study in JAMA also found an increase in cannabis use among older adults who used alcohol between 2015 and 2018. “The risk associated with co-use is higher than the risk of using either alone,” the authors stated.
The 2020 JAMA study also found a general increase in marijuana usage by older adults in the U.S. The researchers performed a secondary analysis of close to 15,000 adults aged 65 years and up from the 2015-2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, “a cross-sectional nationally representative survey of noninstitutionalized individuals” in America. They estimated that the proportion of adults reporting past-year cannabis intake increased from 2.4% to 4.2% from 2015 to 2018. This trend follows previous findings that the use of cannabis by adults 65 years and older in this country increased from 0.4% in 2006 and 2007 to 2.9% in 2015 and 2016.
Groups where the increase was more marked included women, people who were white or nonwhite racial/ethnic minorities, people with college education, married adults, those with higher incomes, and those who received mental health treatment or had diabetes. As we noted, people who drank alcohol also reported using more cannabis during this time. Factors like “social desirability” and potentially limited recall abilities of respondents were potential limitations of the study.