Grandma, Are You Smoking Pot?

A recent study found a 71 percent increase in the number of people older than 49 who reported using marijuana between 2006 and 2013.

(Photo by Jeremiah Vandermeer)

While much attention is focused on how legalizing medical and recreational cannabis will affect younger people, one New York University study set out to discover how the nation’s changing cannabis laws are impacting older citizens.

The study, titled “Demographic Trends Among Older Cannabis Users in the United States, 2006-2013,” was published in October in the journal Addiction. It found a 71 percent increase in self-reported marijuana use among adults aged 50 and older. Although those 65 and older used cannabis at a lower rate than those 50 to 64, the prevalence of use in the latter group increased by 250 percent over the eight years that data were being gathered.

These statistics indicate a shift in perception and a move toward destigmatization for a population whose first exposure to marijuana was during the counterculture boom of the late 1960s.

Joseph J. Palamar, an assistant professor in the section on tobacco, alcohol, and drug use in the department of population health, was the senior author of the study. Palamar agrees that the Baby Boomer generation’s first-hand experiences with marijuana may have a role to play in its members’ willingness to embrace it again today.

“In some respects, this generation is more experienced with marijuana than the younger generations,” he says. “This is the generation that actually popularized the drug marijuana. It’s always been around, but it bloomed in popularity in the late 1960s.”

Much has changed since in 50 years.

“For the kids these days, marijuana is just already here,” he adds. “For this other generation, I hate to say they were test rats because that it makes it seem like a bad thing, but in many respects, they were the test rats for marijuana.”

NYU’s study has produced some interesting statistics that speak to trends in self-reported usage among those 50 and older. While 10 years ago roughly 4 percent of males in the data set reported past marijuana use, that number has now increased to 7 percent. While perhaps not a seismic shift, the increase does reflect a trend that is seeing older Americans more open to the prospect of using cannabis.

According to Palamar, males typically report usage at a rate double that of females for all illicit substances. In the case of this survey, women 50 years of age and older went up from 2.9 percent a decade ago to 5.1 percent. Although Whites are most likely to report using pot, when the data is controlled for other variables, there are no significant differences across race.

It is also important to emphasize how data like the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) — from which this NYU survey drew its information — is collected.

When asked about subjects’ reliability at self-disclosing past drug use, Palamar says: “That’s a great point that a lot of people don’t consider.”

“There have been … longitudinal studies,” he adds, “where you survey the same people for many years, and a lot of people change their answers over time. They’ll say that they used a drug, and then five years later, they’ll say that they never used it.”

The survey incorporates both a person-to-person interview and a computer survey in which the subject is often in privacy and sometimes even wearing headphones. Palamar says subjects are far more willing to be dishonest in the former setting, while the seclusion of the latter can sometimes lead to more truthful responses. In other cases, asking a 65-year-old to remember if they used marijuana 40 years after the fact can sometimes reveal the simple fact that they don’t remember.

As a public health researcher, Palamar feels this new information means the focus needs to expand beyond the potential effects of marijuana on the developing brains of teenagers to its effects on their grandparents. He also says that it wasn’t until this year that the NSDUH added a question to see whether users view marijuana as a recreational substance or as medicine, so until the numbers can catch up with the rapidly changing landscape of the cannabis industry, it’s hard to know why exactly older people are turning to marijuana.

“I worry about legal repercussions,” he says. “I worry about a nice little grandma that gets caught with weed and arrested. These are people that are at risk for arrest in the United States. It saddens me thinking about a teenager being arrested for possessing weed, and it saddens me even more imagining that a little old woman could theoretically be arrested for smoking weed. You don’t want your grandma getting arrested, regardless of what you think about marijuana.”

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