Steve, 51, remembers well the first time he got high.
“I was a freshman in high school and my friend Chovi from India found me on the handball court where I had been spray-painting images of Alfred E. Newman with a stencil I’d made,” says Steve. “Chovi must’ve been about 4’6” and had this massive afro shaped like a square helmet that was three sizes too big for his face. The guy was hilarious based on looks alone. I had low expectations, because I had tried pot twice before and had never felt anything. And I didn’t notice much from this at first, either, but it turned out to be a creeper.”
Heading home, Steve remembers “feeling like Albert Hofmann on his famous bike ride” after discovering the formula for LSD. Then, suddenly, he found himself overly high and met with a locked door at his parent’s house – meaning he’d have to confront his mom.
“Oh God, my mom was going to have to let me in,” he recalls. “I couldn’t face my mom like that. As soon as she opened the door, I pushed past her and dashed up the stairs. She shouted up to me all concerned, ‘Is everything okay?’ And I shouted back, ‘Yep! Everything’s great, Mom!’ And I locked myself in my room and played my KISS records.”
That was 1977. Three businesses and a home in the wealthiest zip code of the Bay Area later, Steve finds himself enjoying a new wave of Mary Jane’s alluring wiles. Only these days, instead of rolling a doobie, he puffs his vape pen.
Steve’s story isn’t particularly unique. Baby boomers across the nation are getting reacquainted with cannabis after a hiatus from pot through their middle years. According to a 2012 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration comparing trends with 2002, cannabis use among people between the ages 50-54 and 60-64 has almost doubled. Meanwhile, pot use among boomers age 55-59 has more than quadrupled. And they’re not merely dabbling. The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that baby boomers are regularly consuming cannabis an average of once a week. And these numbers are expected to rise. By the end of 2015, nearly 111 million Americans over 50 were projected to be cannabis consumers, according to research by IBISWorld. That figure could jump another seven percent by 2020.
Baby boomers across the nation are getting reacquainted with cannabis after a hiatus from pot through their middle years.
Partly responsible for this reefer renaissance is the rapidly increasing social acceptance of cannabis as a medicine and recreational choice.
“When medical marijuana became a thing and I realized I could get a pot prescription and get my anxiety issues under control at the same time, that’s when I got reacquainted with pot,” says Steve.
Indeed, studies suggest that boomers are using cannabis medicinally more than recreationally, often to deal with age-related issues such as chronic pain, depression and rheumatoid arthritis. Even Steve calls his vape pen “the most entertaining anti-anxiety medicine I’ve ever been prescribed.” In fact, the only time he labels his cannabis consumption recreational is in the context of a bad trip.
“When I first came back to it around 2009, I had just met a lady, so I asked the budtender to give me the very best they had. I didn’t ask for a strain that does a particular thing, or makes you feel any particular way – just the best.”
The budtender recommended OG Kush, a name that he says he’ll always remember just so that he can avoid its super strength.
“It was unbelievably intense,” he says. “Way too advanced for my old-school roots. I brought it with me to my lady friend’s house, thinking I’d impress her with how hip I was. We had tickets to a show, but ended up just sitting on the couch for about four hours. Not talking, not moving; I wasn’t even sure she was still there most of the time. Every now and then, she would laugh, then I’d start laughing. Then it would be silent again for another hour. That was awkward. I will never smoke a strain that strong again, not unless I’m method-acting for the role of a corpse. There was nothing recreational about that experience at all.”
With potency five to 10 times greater than the Mexican swag smokers enjoyed in the ’70s, baby boomers are understandably trepidatious about coming back to cannabis.
“I miss the giggling,” continues Steve. “Pot back then used to be really light and giggly. Today’s pot is too heavy for me. It weighs me down.”
Despite the industry’s race to breed strains with the highest THC possible, options do exist for baby boomers who want to get pleasantly elevated without blasting off into the stratosphere. Cannabis with THC in the low double-digits – say, the 10-14 percent range – may provide a low-impact way to get a gentle buzz. And with the advent of the vape pen, boomers are strolling the path back to pot with more ease and grace than ever.
“Last year, I was bed-ridden after a skiing accident,” recalls Judith, a 60-year-old San Francisco travel agent. “All I could do was lay in bed taking pain killers and watching Netflix. The pain pills had me so groggy and out of it that I would suffer through [the pain] as long as I could before finally giving in and taking one. When my son came over and offered me a puff off his new vape pen – my first thought was, ‘My goodness, what kind of robot joint is this?’ But let me tell you, it literally changed my world.
“I mean, it [worked] faster than the pain pills, and it didn’t turn me into a zombie,” she says. “Pretty much one little puff every hour or two kept my pain at bay, and I have to admit, it was pretty fun, too! I mean, I was laughing at things that, on the pills, I couldn’t do more than stare at with my eyes glazed over. With that little pen, I felt like myself again. And bonding with my son, watching documentaries and laughing at movies together, was a brilliant, unexpected bonus. Now when I have friends over, we’ll have a little vape with our tea.”
Vape pens are becoming ubiquitous as a discreet way for cannabists, many of them boomers, to consume concentrated versions of the plant. Because it lends itself so easily to taking just one puff at a time, the vape pen provides users with an easier way to manage dosage. And because the oil contains such a high concentration of THC to begin with, one hit will often suffice.
“That’s just a classy way to get high, in my opinion,” says Steve about vape pens. “Mine even doubles as a stylus. It’s my new favorite way to get high.”
Originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.