The number of Americans above the age of 65 who smoke weed or use cannabis edibles has almost doubled between 2015 and 2018, according to a new study published Monday.
In just four years, the percentage of baby boomers using cannabis jumped from 2.4 percent to 4.2 percent in the United States.
“Our study shows cannabis use is increasingly popular nationwide among older adults,” the study’s lead author, Benjamin Han, assistant professor of Geriatric Medicine, Palliative Care and Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told CNN.
“Consider that not even 10 years ago 0.4% of adults 65 and older said they had used marijuana in the past year, and now it’s 10 times that at 4%,” Han said.
“I find it fascinating that people who would never touch an illegal drug are now trying to get it, even if it’s just for medical purposes,” the study’s co-author Joseph Palamar, an associate professor of population health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, added.
Medical vs. recreational use
Researchers initially thought that certain medical problems could be driving the rising interest in cannabis among the senior population.
“I was curious to see if it was people who are more sick, with say, multiple chronic conditions, trying cannabis, or is it the healthier people, perhaps with only one health condition,” Han said.
“And it appears it’s the healthier older people who are trying cannabis more.”
For the study, researchers analyzed the responses from 14,896 to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a nationally representative survey, broken down by socio-demographic background, chronic disease, healthcare utilization, and other substance use.
Cannabis use was highest among women, ethnic minorities, and seniors who were married, college-educated, and had incomes of $20,000 to $49,000 and $75,000 or higher.
Interestingly, marijuana use more than doubled among seniors with diabetes, those who received mental health treatment, and those saying they drank alcohol in the past year.
“I’m not sure why older people with diabetes are increasingly using cannabis,” Han said, adding that diabetes is not typically a disease for which cannabis is used, unlike cancer or Parkinson’s disease.
Could cannabis be dangerous for seniors?
Han said that seniors using alcohol and cannabis was one of the most “disturbing” findings. While in 2015, only 2.9% of seniors said they used both alcohol and cannabis (the survey doesn’t ask if they use them at the same time), by 2018, that number had jumped to 6.3%.
“As a geriatrician, I worry about any kind of prescribed medicine or substance use — anything that has any kind of psychoactive effects,” Han said. “I worry about things like dizziness, falls. I worry how it may interact with certain medical conditions.”
Palamar also stressed that many seniors who used weed in their youth, may not be aware that cannabis has changed quite a bit since then.
“Weed has been getting stronger over the past few decades,” Palamar said, “and a lot of these seniors don’t take dosing seriously, especially edibles. They think ‘What’s the big deal? I used to do this when I was a kid.’”
“Like, no. This is a very different situation. I’ve heard stories about people eating a whole marijuana cookie or brownie and then call 911 because they think they’re dying.”
“Older adults are especially vulnerable to potential adverse effects from cannabis, and with their increase in cannabis use, there is an urgent need to better understand both the benefits and risks of cannabis use in this population,” the study noted.
Are they just aging stoners?
The study raises some interesting questions: do older people feel more comfortable with cannabis or is the rise driven by older stoners that are just getting older?
“We believe the majority of older people who use weed aren’t recent initiates. At least this is what our previous studies suggest. I think the increases are mainly driven by boomers who use weed aging into the 65 and older age bracket,” Palamar said.
According to the most recent Pew Research Center poll released in November, 63% of Baby Boomers support cannabis legalization, just slightly below the national average of 66%.
“This study gives us important insights into cannabis use among key groups of older adults, particularly baby boomers,” says Dr. Caroline S. Blaum, Professor of Geriatric Medicine and Director of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Care at the NYU School of Medicine.
“Understanding how our older patients use marijuana and evaluating its risks and benefits is one of the most important questions our field must answer to provide the best care.”
Palamar was less excited about the prospect of studying cannabis use in the future. “I’m sure the lead author will want us to look at some more weed data, but I honestly find the topic of marijuana a little boring. We’re in 2020 and I honestly don’t think increases in marijuana use should be considered such a big deal,” Palamar said.