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Volume XXIX
Winter 2017

Our Generation

Seniors Increasingly Getting High

by Carmen Heredia Rodriguez
Kaiser Health News

Baby boomers are getting high in increasing numbers, reflecting growing acceptance of the drug as treatment for various medical conditions, according to a study published in the journal Addiction.

The number of states that have legalized marijuana for recreational use is eight, while many others have approved the use of medical marijuana. Nevada approved the use of medical marijuana during the 2014 legislative session. Nevada voters additionally approved a ballot measure to legalize marijuana in November 2016. Rules and regulations surrounding the new law are currently being developed before its rollout.

The growing use of the drug among the 50-and-older crowd reflects the national trend toward pushing cannabis into mainstream culture. Over 22 million people used the drug in 2015, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The drug has also proved to be a financial boon for state economies, generating over $19 million in September in Colorado.

More people living with medical conditions have sought out marijuana. The study showed the number of individuals living with two or more chronic conditions who used the drug over the past year more than doubled. Among those living with depression, the rate also doubled to 11.4 percent.

Joseph Palamar, a professor at the NYU medical school and a co-author of the study, says the increase among the sick could be attributed to more individuals seeking to self-medicate. Historically, the plant was difficult to research due to the government crackdown on the substance. Palamar said the findings also reinforce the need for research and a call for providers to screen the elderly for drug use. "They shouldn't just assume that someone is not a drug user because they're older," he said.

The study by researchers at New York University School of Medicine suggests more data is needed about the long-term health impact of marijuana use among seniors. Study participants said they did not perceive the drug as dangerous, a sign of changing attitudes.

Benjamin Han, assistant professor at the New York University School of Medicine and the study's lead author, fears that marijuana used with prescription drugs could make the elderly more vulnerable to adverse health outcomes, particularly to falls and cognitive impairment."While there may be benefits to using marijuana such as chronic pain," he said, "there may be risks that we don't know about."

Medical Marjuana

Unlike the marijuana of their youth, seniors living in states that legalized marijuana for medicinal use now can access a drug that has been tested for quality and purity, said Paul Armentano deputy director of NORML, a nonprofit group advocating for marijuana legalization. Additionally, the plant is prescribed to manage diseases that usually strike in older age, pointing to an increasing desire to take a medication that has less side effects than traditional prescription drugs.

"We are coming to a point where state lawmakers are responding to the rapidly emerging consensus-both public consensus and a scientific consensus — that marijuana is not an agent that possesses risks that qualifies it as a legally prohibited substance," he said.

The study findings reveal overall use among the 50-and-older study group increased "significantly" from 2006 to 2013. Marijuana users peaked between ages 50 to 64, then declined among the 65-and-over crowd. Researchers also uncovered an increasing diversity in marijuana users. Past-year use doubled among married couples and those earning less than $20,000 per year. The study was based on 47,140 responses collected from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies the plant as a Schedule I substance. The push and pull between state and federal governments has resulted in varying degrees of legality across the United States. Palamar says this variation places populations at risk of unknowingly breaking the law and getting arrested for drug possession. 'The issue poses one of the biggest public health concerns associated with marijuana," Palamar says


The following states have medical marijuana programs and issue medical marijuana cards: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. Passed in 2016 and coming soon: Arkansas, Florida, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania.