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Seniors’ Usage of Cannabis

Seniors’ use of cannabis and their support for its legalization has risen dramatically in recent years.

Some of this change in attitude is arguably a result of more seniors having first-hand experience with cannabis. According to data published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, the percentage of Americans ages 65 or older reporting having engaged in past-year cannabis use has risen over one-thousand percent in the past decade and a half.

Why are increasing numbers of seniors turning to—or in some cases, returning to—cannabis? For starters, the law has changed. Medical cannabis is now legally available throughout Canada and in 33 US states, providing many older adults for the first time with safe, above-ground, uninterrupted access to an array of cannabis products. Since the majority of seniors prefer non-herbal, non-smoked cannabis preparations, such as cannabis-infused capsules or edibles, they are largely reliant on these above-ground licensed stores for their access, as such product varieties are typically unavailable in the illicit marketplace.

Furthermore, seniors are becoming more familiar with and accepting of cannabis’ therapeutic properties. Not only are increasing numbers of seniors becoming aware that cannabis can mitigate many of the health-related symptoms that come with older age, such as chronic pain, but they also understand that it can do so with fewer side-effects than many prescription drugs, like opioids.

According to survey data compiled by the cannabis chain Verilife, nearly three-out-of-four baby boomers (those born between the years of 1946 and 1964) define their cannabis use as ‘medical.’ And an increasing body of literature finds it is safe and effective for them.

Specifically, data from Israel—where medical cannabis is available by prescription—finds that over 90% of seniors engaged in cannabis therapy report improvements in their symptoms. Nearly one-in-five Israeli seniors surveyed also reported either ceasing or reducing their use of opioids, while the majority of respondents said that cannabis significantly improved their overall quality of life.

Studies from elderly patients in the US show similar results. For instance, data compiled in 2019 by researchers affiliated with the University of Colorado School of Medicine reported that past-year cannabis use among those aged 60 and older “improved overall health, quality of life, [and] day-to-day functioning.” Separate data presented at the annual meeting of the American Geriatrics Society reports that more than half of seniors surveyed reported reducing their use of opiates following the initiation of medical cannabis.

Most recently, data published in August in the journal “Clinical Gerontologist” assessed seniors’ use of medical cannabis on health-related outcomes over a one-year period. Investigators reported a “strong positive association” between subjects’ frequency of cannabis use and self-reported improvements in pain, health-care utilization, and overall health-related quality of life. Participants failed to report any statistically significant association between medical cannabis use and adverse events.

They concluded, “[We] identified a strong positive association between higher frequency of cannabis use and improvement to HRQL [health-related quality of life] and HCU [health-care utilization] scores… Our regression modeling also identified a strong positive relationship between higher frequency of cannabis use and self-reported improvements to pain symptoms. The positive relationship between near-daily use and improved reports offers further evidence of the perceived value of medical cannabis as a therapeutic approach for pain management.”

This shift in the demographics with respect to who is consuming cannabis, and their reasons for using it have significant political implications. It galvanizes support amongst arguably the most reliable and powerful voting block—seniors. As their attitudes continue to evolve on cannabis, expect to see many municipal politicians shift their views as well and start allowing licenced stores in their cities.

Paul Armentano is the Deputy Director of NORML—the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws—and he is the co-author of the book Marijuana Is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? (Chelsea Green, 2013). Additional information about NORML and its efforts are available at www.norml.org.