When she was growing up in Illinois, Katie always saw her stepdad, Rory, as a straight-laced guy. He’d enjoy a few glasses of wine, but anything more was out of the question. When she was a teenager, he sat her down for a talk about drugs. Weed, he warned, should be avoided at all costs.
“He told me his cautionary tale about trying cannabis once and how it was a very, very bad experience. He thought it was laced with something,” Katie, now a 33-year-old writer living in Oakland, tells Bustle. In her parents’ eyes, “It was the end of the world if we got caught with weed. It was like ‘Oh my god, you need to go to rehab!’”
Then, in 2016, the family was on vacation in Colorado when Rory slipped and hurt his back. The doctor gave him prescription painkillers, but he didn’t want to take them because he’d once developed a dependence on Vicodin after a motorcycle accident in the 1990s. Katie and her sister offered an alternative: a square of cannabis chocolate they’d picked up at a local dispensary.
Rory, then 72, was hesitant but agreed to give it a try. “The next day he was so amazed,” Katie says. “He was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that really made me feel better... I feel asleep and woke up feeling great!’” Over the course of the vacation, Katie says the other edibles she and her sister had bought began to mysteriously disappear. On the way to the airport, Rory asked if they could make a family pit stop at a dispensary to “stock up” on a few more treats. After that visit, Katie reports that consuming cannabis became habitual for her stepfather.
What’s going to happen now that mom and dad are stoned?
“He’s kind of a gourmand, so he was very intrigued by the edible scene, and he was really excited about it,” says Katie, who asked to use her first name only since cannabis is still illegal in the state where Rory lives. “He’ll call [the edibles] ‘my special chocolate.’ He’s also just smoking whenever he can get his hands on it.”
Cannabis is now effectively legal in some form in more than 30 states and Washington, D.C., and according to a 2017 study from Yahoo News and Marist College, nearly 35 million Americans consume cannabis at least once or twice a month. But it’s not just teens and millennials driving the trend. Older Americans like Rory are developing a late-blooming taste for pot. A sizeable new study released in September found that cannabis consumption has doubled among adults 50 to 64 over the last decade, bringing about serious shifts in weed marketing, education, and strategies for combating use disorder and addiction. The spike in interest among this demographic has also raised new questions and concerns about problematic use and potential health issues that are specific to older adults. Their adult children, as well as healthcare providers and those in the burgeoning weed industry, are suddenly confronting the question: What’s going to happen now that mom and dad are stoned?
And stoned they are, at least among certain demographics. The study published in September, conducted by researchers at the NYU School of Medicine and the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, analyzed responses from 17,608 adults over age 50 from the 2015 and 2016 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health. It found that cannabis use among adults 65-plus was seven times higher than 10 years prior. The study found that 9 percent of adults 50-64 (boomers) and 2.9 percent of adults 65 and older (seniors) reported using cannabis during a one-year period that covered 2016 to 2017. That’s up from 7.1 percent of boomers and 1.4 percent of seniors in 2013.
The uptick in use is attributed to many factors: legalization in some areas, a general trend towards decriminalization, novelty products, and elaborate marketing plans chief among them. Surveys, including the one by NYU, have shown that many older adults feel the risk of use is low. It also helps that, for boomers in particular, re-engaging with pot feels like a reunion with an old friend.
"We smoked a lot of pot to get high [back then], and now it feels like you need two puffs and you’re on your way."
That’s because, for the majority of older users, their recent forays into cannabis use aren’t their first. The NYU study, published in the Drug and Alcohol Dependence journal, found that 93 percent of users 50 to 64 and 55 percent of users 65-plus had first used cannabis before they turned 21. That familiarity is likely one factor contributing to the overall trends in consumption, experts say.
“As stigma declines and access improves, it appears that baby boomers — many of whom have prior experience smoking cannabis — are increasingly using it,” Benjamin Han, M.D., lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care and Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health, said in a statement.
Margaret, a 58-year-old executive leadership consultant from Northern California, smoked in her youth, but she rarely heard friends or colleagues talk about cannabis before voters approved Prop 64, which legalized growing and possessing cannabis for recreational use in 2016 (the legalization of selling and taxing cannabis took effect in 2018). And while her three millennial sons, ages 27, 30, and 33, were open about their own marijuana habits, she wouldn’t go near it — she didn’t like the idea of inhaling smoke or that it wasn’t legal.
Now, it’s not unusual for a friend to drop in conversation that their kids took them to a dispensary or casually recommend trying some form of cannabis to soothe an achy joint. She, too, has gotten high a handful of times with her sons and friends over the last two years, even though she voted against the legalization measure over concerns it could lead to more substance abuse.
"Am I going to take my mom out to the Kush Fest? No. That’s not going to happen."
“I’m surprised at the number of people I know now who smoke it,” Margaret, who asked to use a pseudonym to protect the reputations of her sons and CEO clients, tells Bustle. “A lot of people are open to it, and people I consider really conservative are open to it.”
Tamar Victoria, 40, witnessed a similar shift among her 62-year-old mother’s circle of friends in New York. Her mother, who once avoided alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes, viewed marijuana as a product of the “devil.” That changed after Victoria, who runs a cannabis-related business herself, introduced her to brownies made with hemp flowers to help her cope with lingering pain she experienced after chemotherapy. Soon after, her mother tried smoothies made with non-psychotropic CBD oil and a vape pen. These days, her mom is an evangelist for cannabis. In fact, Victoria calls the seniors her research and development team for her own line of CBD products.
“She’ll say [to a friend,] ‘Hey girl, I know your knee is hurting, my daughter has a cream for you,” Victoria says. “[Or] talking to her friends who have anxiety, they will be like, ‘I don’t want to smoke pot’ and she’ll say, ‘You don’t have to smoke pot, I have a cinnamon vaporizer. It tastes great!’”
In Victoria’s eyes, increasing acceptance among seniors is all about dispelling myths that using cannabis means being a “half baked” stoner and exposing them to the range of options for consumption, many of which won’t actually leave you feeling high.
“Am I going to take my mom out to the Kush Fest? No. That’s not going to happen. Is Wiz Khalifa’s line of products for my mom? No,” she says. “She’s a lady of a certain age. If you present it to them in a way with a reasonable argument and good information, it’s kind of like the tables have turned.”
It’s not just potent edibles offering new experiences — and challenges — for older users. Whether they’ve been partaking (illegally) all along or wading back into the world of weed again after decades of abstinence, legalization has changed the game. Instead of accessing it by word of mouth and dealers, cannabis can now be acquired through dispensaries and delivery apps. For many adults in states where cannabis has been legalized for medicinal or recreational purposes, gone are the days of blunts and bowls being some of the only options for feeling the effects. Curious cannabis users can now nibble on gummies or puff on vape pens, mix up tinctures or lather on CBD-laced lotions. But the many options — not to mention new lingo — can also be overwhelming.
Jeffrey Westman, a 55-year-old cannabis consultant based in Sebastopol, California, has set out to fill that knowledge gap, hosting “Cannabis 101” informational sessions for retirees and seniors in residential homes. The most frequent questions, he says, have to do with dosage and potency. Number two is how to get the product. Many are hesitant to go to a dispensary. Some have even likened it to “adult bookstores,” he says: “You walk past them and you’re curious, but you don’t go in.”
"It’s there, it’s cheap, and everyone is doing it."
To woo those wary patrons, dispensaries are rolling out promotions like senior discounts (10 percent off with a valid ID!) and informational sessions aimed at the aging population. These perks seem to be working. Nicholas Vita, CEO of Columbia Care, the nation’s largest manufacturer and provider of medical cannabis products and services, says seniors now make up more than 10 percent of the company’s customers in some locations. And, their market share is rising. “Senior customers make up a sizable portion of our clientele and an even larger percentage of our growth,” Vita, whose dispensaries offer senior discounts, says. “As more reliable data begins to show the benefits of medical cannabis for a range of conditions, an increasing number of seniors come to Columbia Care after being recommended medical cannabis from qualified medical providers.”
Industry veterans are also trying to bring the product to the people. Westman is among those pioneering a delivery service that will provide seniors with products dosed for their specific needs.
While the majority of advertising still focuses on luring the younger customers who make up a majority of market share, an increased emphasis on cannabis’ ability to enhance one’s “well-being, enjoy nature, [and] be at peace,” not to mention potential therapeutic benefits, might also appeal to older users, according to Beatriz H. Carlini, Ph.D., a social psychologist researching cannabis use at University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. Carlini, who also has been invited to speak to retirement homes and senior gatherings, says most of the questions she gets are about pain management and the various forms of cannabis available today.
“There truly is more availability and aggressive marketing [and] more seniors are normalizing the use of cannabis in their heads again,” says Carlini, who is 60. “It’s there, it’s cheap, and everyone is doing it.”
"This is why equality and equity are such a major topic in the cannabis industry — many black ... boomers hold a lot of fear."
Erin Royal, a 27-year-old DJ and AmeriCorps member from San Francisco, encountered similar questions to the ones Carlini and Westman field when she helped her aunt and uncle navigate the new world of weed during a recent visit to their home outside Seattle. Both had used pot in the past — they smoked when they were younger, and her aunt used cannabis medicinally while getting chemotherapy. Even so, they “had a ton of questions,” she says. “They were asking about CBD [cannabidiol], they had no idea what CBD was,” she says. “To them, weed is weed, and it gets you stoned, and that’s it. I was like, ‘No, no, no, there’s this whole other universe of using marijuana and it being legitimately medicinal!’”
Like many of Westman’s clients, her aunt and uncle hadn’t yet worked up the courage to visit one of two new dispensaries in their community. One night this June, after a few glasses of wine, they suggested stopping by on the way home from dinner. Royal, who had long been open about using cannabis to reduce anxiety, was down, albeit bemused that they were making it such a big deal. “I was like, ‘It doesn’t have to be this drunk secret!’” she recalls. “We can go in broad daylight!”
Royal helped them pick out a hybrid joint and some cannabis lotion. “I wanted to start it small,” she says. “They just had no idea what they were smoking before, and these days it’s a lot easier to know exactly what’s in it and what’s going on.” The choices were a hit. They started using the lotion regularly and, as Royal discovered when she came back to find them giggling in their hot tub, thoroughly enjoyed the joint.
Not all the boomers in her life are so open to trying bud. Royal’s dad, who she says smoked in the 1970s, remains critical of her drug use. She attributes his attitude to the fact that it’s still illegal — and much less socially acceptable — where he lives in North Carolina. It’s a perspective that’s hard for Royal, a young white woman living in a liberal state, to understand. "For upper-middle class white people, you’re not getting arrested,” she says.
The role that race plays in expanding or limiting access, both in the general population and among older Americans, is so evident that almost every source for this story referenced it, including those who, like Royal, are white and benefit from the bias. According to the NYU study, rates of use within the last year were especially high among older adults who fit Katie’s stepdad Rory’s description: white, male, and middle class or affluent. Part of that demographic’s willingness to embrace weed is likely due to an awareness that, no matter where they live, they won't be prosecuted. “It makes a big difference that it is legal, particularly for an older group that wouldn't go through the trouble of doing something illegal at this point in life,” Carlini, who is white, says. “People at an older age, myself included, would really feel bad finding an illegal dealer.”
But for people of color, weed’s legality in some places does not offer the protection it does to white users. Cannabis is still fully illegal on the federal level, and while surveys suggest black and white Americans use cannabis at similar rates, racial disparities from the era of full prohibition persist. Arrests for marijuana-related offenses are down, but black people are still arrested at rates much higher than their white counterparts, including in states where the drug is legal. This unequal treatment by law enforcement determines who gets to enjoy weed without worry and who doesn’t, and that affects which older adults are free to appreciate its medicinal and recreational benefits.
"In the culture of people of color, it's hush and keep it hush."
This disparity is on the minds of older users. Victoria, who is black, says inequalities in the consequences of being caught with cannabis shape use and views in her community. Even as they become more comfortable with weed, her older relatives prefer to be more discreet with their use, only consuming at home or in trusted places. "This is why equality and equity are such a major topic in the cannabis industry — many black ... boomers hold a lot of fear," she says.
That fear, and the law enforcement bias it’s based on, gets reflected in pop culture, too: Researching TV and movie stills to illustrate this article, it was much harder to find portrayals of black boomers and seniors smoking weed, especially in the lighthearted, harmlessly bougie way all of the white characters are depicted. "The easiest way to hold [onto] these ideas, which are so ingrained in our culture, about people of color — no matter what background — is to not allow or feature [us] in any other light than negative" while using weed, Victoria says. Depictions of high-functioning black people consuming cannabis for recreational or even medicinal purposes are rare.
Given the double-standard, some older black Americans see smoking out in the open as borrowing trouble. "In the culture of people of color, it's hush and keep it hush," Victoria says. “My grandmother will say, 'Well, if he was out there smoking pot, he deserved to get arrested.'"
Margaret, who is white, says she frequently discusses legal and racial issues surrounding legalization and use with friends, including those who also consume cannabis. “America holds people of color far more accountable for drug-related offenses than we do white people. That is clear in the data and in the disproportionate number of people of color in prison specifically for marijuana-related crimes, when those crimes are far more prevalent in the white community,” she says.
Katie, who is also white, says she thinks a lot about how the color of her skin has shaped her views and behaviors. When Rory wanted to (illegally) bring edibles home in his suitcase from Colorado, she remembers rationalizing the decision in her head as, “Not sure if that's kosher, but at least he's a respectable-looking old white guy.”
That rationale was informed in part by her own experiences. “I've been caught driving with weed in my car, and faced no serious consequences, which I imagine has a lot to do with my race,” she adds.
"For the boomers, because it’s legal, it is seen as just as safe as getting drunk. [But] if it’s impacting an individual's ability to meet their responsibilities or do their roles, that’s a sign of a use disorder.”
As broader stigma around cannabis use fades, conversations among older Americans about who gets to have weed and who doesn’t could have a major impact. Given that older Americans are more likely to vote than their younger brethren, the trend of boomers and seniors warming to weed has the potential to shape policy even further. Spreading awareness about the inequities could, in theory, drive support for broader decriminalization and other steps to combat racism in the criminal justice system. To that point, a number of prominent Democratic politicians — including U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, who are considered potential contenders in the 2020 presidential race — have adopted pro-legalization stances.
But even if weed use becomes legal on the federal level and is decriminalized for everyone, not just white Americans, using pot isn’t without other risks, especially for older people. While many debate the addictiveness of cannabis, substance dependence and abuse in general is increasing among older Americans. About 7 percent of the adults surveyed in earlier data analyzed by NYU researchers met the criteria for abuse or dependence. The latest study also found that cannabis users were more likely to use — and abuse — other substances.
Brad Conner, director of addiction counseling at Colorado State University, says available data, while limited, suggests treatment admissions for cannabis use disorder are increasing more rapidly than other substances, with the exception of opiates. Boomers, along with adolescents, are believe to be fueling that trend. These older users may not immediately recognize the signs of dependence or abuse — using more to get the same high, experiencing withdrawal symptoms like sleep disturbance, grouchiness, or increased pain.
"I only knew her in the context of a mom. I didn’t know her as a person who smoked."
“For the boomers (especially those who have taken a hiatus [since] their adolescent years), because it’s legal, it is seen as just as safe as getting drunk,” Conner, who is also an associate professor in the department of psychology, says. “[But] if it’s impacting an individual's ability to meet their responsibilities or do their roles, so if they can’t go to work because they’re using, or it’s impacting their relationships, or if they’re operating heavy machinery while high, that’s a sign of a use disorder.”
Overuse has been a concern for Hope, a marketing associate at a publishing house in Portland, Oregon. The 24-year-old watched her dad and stepmom overcome cannabis addictions years ago. While both have remained sober, her mom and stepdad, both around 50, starting using the drug much more heavily and openly after it was legalized in her home state, even growing it in their backyard. She tells Bustle that she tried to accept it, and smoked with her mom a few times, but it didn’t feel right. “It was really weird. I only knew her in the context of a mom. I didn’t know her as a person who smoked,” she says. “I’m like, you guys aren’t allowed to be rebellious.” Hope also worries about the effects the use could have on her younger half-siblings. “It’s a heck of a lot easier if you’re high if you hand your kid an iPad than to actively engage with them,” she says. “I don’t worry that they’re unsafe, but that they’re growing up feeling unseen.”
There can be risks for casual older users, too. Disorientation or drowsiness caused by cannabis use, especially if combined with other substances, could lead to falls or other issues, multiple researchers tell Bustle. Carlini said while she isn’t concerned about a “mass epidemic” of cannabis addiction among the aging population, she is worried about its impact on older bodies. She advises users to be aware of (and talk to their doctors about) potential effects on blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and memory and other cognitive functions.
Potency can also be a problem. Conner, the addiction specialist, worries that unsuspecting users could be caught off guard by today’s stronger strains of cannabis. “This is not the cannabis people were smoking in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s a much different product,” says Conner. “That can cause problems for people because they come back to the drug thinking it’s going to be one way and it’s a completely different substance.”
Margaret, the boomer who hadn’t smoked pot since high school, says she’s definitely noticed a shift in the potency. “We smoked a lot of pot to get high [back then] and now it feels like you need two puffs and you’re on your way,” she says.
What really blew her away, though, was the power of edibles. One time, she decided to eat a piece of chocolate one of her sons gave her for back pain before a few friends came over for visit. An hour later, she wasn’t feeling any effects and figured she was fine. Then it hit her. “Two hours in, I was really high. I was trying to control myself,” she recalls. “I finally confessed. I was like, ‘I feel like I’m all over the place. I had a tab of edibles and I'm super high right now!’ Everyone was cracking up.”
Humor aside, the shock of strong weed can put seniors at risk. Conner notes that some strains of cannabis’ impact on motor function and cognitive impairment could lead to disorientation, falls, or other accidents. Another expert recalled an ex-girlfriend’s mother calling 911 after eating too many edibles. That’s why experts say it’s important that aging adults who do return to marijuana familiarize themselves with the strength and dosage of the products they consume.
"It’s better than sitting around drinking gin all day or eating Xanax."
Finally, there is the health question: Will cannabis lead to a steeper decline in older Americans? For years, public health researchers have raised questions about how pot use might impact the brains of developing teens. But what’s the effect of a lifetime of cannabis use? Or a resurgence later on? One recent groundbreaking study, published in the September issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, linked cannabis use to premature aging for the first time. Researchers analyzed brain scans of more than 62,000 individuals and found that cannabis abuse accelerated aging by nearly three years.
“Our culture is starting to see marijuana as an innocuous substance,” Daniel G. Amen, the lead author of the study, said in a press release. “This study should give us pause about it.”
Still, some argue that its relative safety makes cannabis a good option for both recreational and medicinal effects, especially in comparison to opioids and other pharmaceuticals. The NYU study found that one in five adults 65 and older who had used marijuana in the last year did so on the recommendation of their doctor. (Among users 50 to 64, it was 15 percent). And a 2018 study of Medicare data found that reported use of pain medications among the elderly decreased significantly in states where cannabis was legalized for medicinal use. Carlini says given the current state of the opioid crisis, offering cannabis as an alternative for pain relief and other health problems could be a “mass benefit.” Westman, the cannabis consultant, agrees.
“If you’re in your 70s and 80s and you have a lot of aches and pains and you’re bored, if you want to stay stoned a lot, I don’t see a problem,” Westman says. “It’s better than sitting around drinking gin all day or eating Xanax.”
Katie, who first introduced her stepdad to cannabis back in 2016, has developed a similar outlook. Rory’s proclivity for pot has only grown in the years since she gave him that chocolate square in Colorado. A few weeks after arriving back home in California, Katie got a call. It was Rory with a question — and a request: Did his stepdaughter have access to edibles in California and, if so, could she mail him some? He offered to send a check to cover the costs (shipping included). Katie was a hesitant (it is illegal, after all, and, if caught, can carry a sentence of five to 10 years behind bars). But she eventually said yes. As a white woman living in California, she felt the risks were fairly low. She figured “postal workers are not likely to check the contents of my mail when I show up to illegally ship him edibles.”
He calls every few months with request for more shipments of his “special chocolate” (though he’s upgraded from checks to Apple Pay) and downloaded Weedmaps on his phone to visit dispensaries himself when traveling for business. At home, he enjoys getting high and then, ever the gourmand, inventing fancy new bar cocktails as part of a new mixologist phase he’s going through.
Sometimes she worries that he’s overdoing it, but in the end, she thinks the calming benefits and pain relief are worth any negative health impact for him. And at the end of the day, it’s been a good way for them to bond. “It was fun to give back a little and say, ‘You know, I think you’ll like this,’” she says. Even her mom, who still claims she’s never tried it, is now supportive.
“He’s in his 70s,” Katie says. “I want him to do whatever’s going to make him happy.”
Top photo credit: HBO; Kristin Mahler/Bustle