Bill Martin is a product of the 1960s when it comes to using marijuana. The Vietnam veteran experimented with smoking weed after his discharge. But he quit using while he raised a family in the 1980s.
“I was a clean machine,” said Martin, 76, a Deerfield resident who grew up in Winnetka.
Then, about five years ago, he began using cannabis again when the drug was cleared for medicinal use in Illinois.
“I have issues sleeping, and it helps me for that,” Martin said. “It’s stronger now than it was then, but I knew the effect it would have on me.”
Martin is among millions of older adults who have started using marijuana in the last decade, but questions remain about the health effects of cannabis on seniors.
More than a third of people 65 and older have tried pot once in their lives, a tripling since 2009, according to the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Seniors are also the fastest-growing age group of pot users.
However, seniors remain far less likely than younger adults to use marijuana regularly. Five percent of people over 65 reported using marijuana in the last month, compared with 24% of those 25 or younger, according to the survey.
There are many reasons why older adults are picking up weed.
Seniors are using marijuana to treat pain or insomnia and are using it in place of opioids, experts say. And the baby boomer generation, which had more relaxed attitudes toward marijuana in their youth, has reached retirement age.
Legalization has helped increase access and reduce stigma around the drug. In 2020, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Recreational pot use is now legal in 23 states. The federal government on Wednesday took the first steps toward easing restrictions on marijuana.
About a quarter of older adults using pot are people who, like Martin, picked up weed after experimenting as teens, according to a 2019 study of users in Colorado.
New users who never smoked in their youth tend to be older women and well-educated people with health problems, said Kanika Arora of the University of Iowa, the study’s author.
It’s not just legalization and availability, Arora said. It’s also seniors trying to find health remedies, which is something the pot industry understands.
Several dispensaries offer senior discounts. And some products are tailored for seniors, such as pre-rolled joints or half-joints that match the lower THC levels from decades ago, said Lisa Solomon Mann, a cannabis advocate and co-founder of the nonprofit Acannability.
Some dispensaries market specifically to seniors.
Joseph Friedman, a trained pharmacist and founder of the former dispensary PDI Medical, has given presentations for Chicago-area seniors about the benefits of cannabis. About 75% of the customers at his Buffalo Grove medical dispensary were over age 65, he said.
It’s important for seniors to understand they are more sensitive to the effects of cannabis, he said. There’s also possible negative interactions with prescription medications that seniors may be taking.
“We did a lot of handholding with seniors. We started them off on low doses,” Friedman said.
Older adults are more likely to use cannabis in edible form than smoking it, which can cause problems. The effects of the edibles are delayed, sometimes by an hour, compared with smoking marijuana.
Emergency room visits for seniors impaired by weed have surged, along with use, over the last decade, according to one study of California hospitals.
Pot also may affect older adults differently than when they were young, said study co-author Dr. Alison Moore of the University of California San Diego.
“When you’re younger, it makes you feel good. When you’re older, it may make you paranoid,” she said.
For seniors, there’s also a risk of substance use disorder, or addiction. One study showed that 1 in 5 older users become addicted to pot.
Research into the health effects of cannabis on older adults is in its infancy, doctors told the Chicago Sun-Times. Part of that is due to a federal ban on funding cannabis research that was only recently lifted, they said.