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Study: Boomers Smoking More Cannabis

PHOTO Sonia Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance


Study: Boomers Smoking More Cannabis

What may have been a symbol of rebellion and the counterculture in youth, is increasingly seen as medicine to help deal with the challenges of aging.

Cannabis use continues to increase in popularity among adults 65 years of age and older in the United States. With the legalization of cannabis in many states for either medical or “recreational” purposes, there is growing interest in using it to treat a variety of long-term health conditions and symptoms common among older adults.  

These are the findings of a new study from the Grossman School of Medicine at Manhattan’s New York University, entitled “Trends in Cannabis Use Among Older Adults in the United States, 2015-2018,” and published Feb. 24 in JAMA Internal Medicine

The researchers estimate that cannabis use in adults aged 65 and older increased from 2.4% to 4.2% in the United States — a significant increase of 75% — between 2015 and 2018. 

The study states that with the relaxation of the laws governing cannabis in many states, more medical professionals are open to its use in treating a number of chronic health conditions. 

By the study’s count, 31 states have legalized medical marijuana since 1996, while 11 states and Washington DC also have legalized “recreational” use. (In fact, more states than that have some kind of provision for use of cannabinoids by the ailing, if not actual herbaceous cannabis.) 

“Our study shows cannabis use is increasingly popular nationwide among older adults,” says the study’s lead author, Benjamin Han, assistant professor of geriatric medicine and population health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. 

Han added an implicit reference to the paucity of research on the health impacts of cannabis (without actually saying that this research has long been bottle-necked by federal policy): “As more older adults use cannabis, whether for therapeutic or recreational purposes, it is important for health care providers to counsel their patients despite the very limited evidence base on the benefits and harms of cannabis use among older adults.”

For the study, researchers analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, carried out annually by the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, a division of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which is in turn under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The SAMHSA survey categorized cannabis use by asking participants whether they had either smoked or ingested “marijuana,” “hashish,” “pot,” “grass” or “hash oil.”  

Researchers crunched the stats to determine trends in prevalence of past-year cannabis use — broken down by socio-demographic background, chronic disease, healthcare utilization, and other substance use — among adults age 65 and older, nationwide, between 2015 and 2018. 

Certain subsets of this population were determined to have seen an even higher increase in prevalence. For example, researchers estimated that past-year use more than doubled by older adults with diabetes, among those who have received mental health treatment, and those also reporting past-year alcohol use. Women also significantly increased their cannabis use, as did individuals who were married, had a college degree, and/or had higher income.  

In general, however, the increase in cannabis use appeared to be driven largely by those who do not have multiple chronic medical conditions.  

“We need to continue to study both the risks and benefits of marijuana use, especially among older individuals,” says another senior author of the study, Joseph Palamar, associate professor of population health at the Grossman School. “This survey also did not ask about vaping of marijuana or THC products, so its possible use was underestimated. We must follow vaping trends closely, among all age groups.”

The researchers say they next plan to seek more detailed information on how medical marijuana affects older populations, including possible risks and side-effects. They also noted that the profiles of cannabinoids other than THC and CBD in medical marijuana products warrant further research.  

“This study gives us important insights into cannabis use among key groups of older adults, particularly baby boomers,” says Caroline S. Blaum, director of NYU’s Division of Geriatric Medicine & Palliative Care. “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.”  

The new study echoes the findings of a report issued last year by the Pew Research Center. That report also determined that Boomers are using cannabis more, with many turning to the herb as medicine to deal with the challenges of advancing years. That study additionally analyzed attitudes about cannabis, and found that boomers are also the generation that began the demographic tilt in favor of legalization.  

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