It should come as no surprise that cannabis use is on the rise, what with increased access to both medicinal and recreational products – not to mention the slow, yet significant, degradation of stigma around the drug. But one demographic group, in particular, appears to have embraced cannabis more quickly in recent years – senior adults.
Over the last few years, a number of studies have demonstrated that attitudes towards cannabis are changing. This may be true in the general population, but it is apparently adults over the age of 50 that represent the fastest-growing group of cannabis users. In fewer places is this trend more apparent than in North America.
Thanks to the all-out legalisation of adult-use cannabis in Canada and the ever-widening legal market in the US, there is perhaps more data on cannabis use demographics than ever before. For example, an analysis of cannabis use data in the US found that past-year cannabis use rose significantly in adults aged 65 and over in the US, from 2.4% in 2015 to 4.2% in 2018. Furthermore, data from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that almost 9% of adults aged 50 and over reported past-year cannabis use between 2018 and 2019.
The data speaks for itself, but why are older people using more weed?
It’s likely that there are a number of catalysts triggering the rise of the silver stoners. From decreased stigma around recreational use, increased accessibility of cannabis-based medicines, and the recent boost in cannabis wellness, particularly CBD products.
Despite the initial popularity of cannabis among the youth of the 60s and 70s, those that were around back then (who would be in their 70s now) were traditionally regarded as largely anti-cannabis. During the last few decades, surveys consistently placed older adults, aged 65 and over, as more likely to support the continued prohibition of cannabis. However, attitudes are clearly changing.
Support for cannabis legalisation remains highest among young people, but some data suggest that older people are also beginning to consider alternative approaches to the drug. A 2018 survey revealed that almost half (49%) of over 65s polled supported the legalisation of cannabis in the UK.
The same survey also suggested that over three-quarters of respondents would be willing to consume cannabis as a medicine if it was prescribed by their doctor – an opinion that was “fairly consistent” across all demographic groups. So, is the uptake of cannabis among seniors purely down to the perceived medicinal benefit?
A replacement medication?
Medical cannabis has now been legalised in around 50 countries, including the UK and much of Europe and the Americas. While the US is yet to legalise medical cannabis at the federal level, over two-thirds of states now have a legal medical cannabis program. Adults of all ages can now access medicinal cannabis for a large number of indications, including many that are more associated with older people.
Some preliminary evidence suggests that cannabis-based medicines could be useful in the treatment of chronic pain, arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, and even dementia. While much more research is needed to fully understand the drug’s potential in these settings, it appears that the new-found legality of cannabis is prompting experimentation among older age groups.
In the US, a 2016 study found that in states with access to medical cannabis, older people received fewer prescriptions for drugs used in the treatment of pain, anxiety and depression, and other chronic issues. Another study, published in 2018, also found that opioid prescriptions decreased significantly after states legalised weed.
It seems that the legal availability of medical cannabis, coupled with its perceived potential to replace existing medications, may play a significant role in the apparent boost to cannabis use among seniors – but that may not be the only factor.
CBD wellness and recreational use
There’s no doubt that cannabis is still an extremely stigmatised substance – even when used medicinally. However, in recent years, the rise in cannabis wellness has helped to ease this somewhat, with people from all walks of life evidently embracing CBD health products, from tinctures to topicals.
Despite limited clinical evidence, CBD products are often touted as helpful remedies for everything from inflammation and joint pain to anxiety and depression. In a population that has traditionally been mindful of dabbling with cannabis, the non-intoxicating nature of CBD may be perceived as a more viable option.
In a 2019 poll, 8% of US adults aged over 65 said that they used CBD for pain, anxiety, insomnia, and arthritis. A UK survey similarly found that, while older people were less likely to use CBD than younger people, around a quarter of respondents aged 55 and over expressed a desire to access CBD in the future. And CBD brands as well as recreational suppliers and dispensaries in the US and Canada are taking note.
CBD can be purchased not only in the form of tinctures and vapes but in capsules, tablets, and lotions. While these products may not contain THC (or trace amounts at the most), that doesn’t mean that senior citizens aren’t also experimenting with the more intoxicating elements of cannabis.
Dispensaries in the US and Canada are increasingly aiming to cater to their older clientele by offering up shuttle bus services to their premises as well as senior discounts. Some retailers in the US even send cannabis advocates to assisted living facilities and senior recreational centres to inform residents and visitors how to qualify for and use medical cannabis.
Are there any cons to cannabis use in seniors?
Seniors’ newfound interest in all things cannabis – whether for medicinal or recreational purposes – may spark excitement among business owners and advocates of the drug, but there are also those who advise caution.
There is growing evidence to suggest that cannabis and its derivatives could be useful in a wide range of settings – many of which may be particularly beneficial for older people. Some studies suggest that medical cannabis could be useful for arthritis, while others demonstrate its potential efficacy for depression; however, experts and clinicians warn that more research is needed to fully understand the implications of increased cannabis use in older people.
Even CBD, a non-psychoactive compound which is considered safe and well-tolerated, may require caution. This is less to do with the effects of the cannabinoid itself and more to do with potential drug-drug interactions, including with blood thinners, antibiotics, anticonvulsants, antidepressants, and anti-psychotics.
Nonetheless, the wider consensus seems to be clear. Whether cannabis is seen as a replacement medication for a number of ailments or as an increasingly acceptable way to relax and unwind, the older generations are no longer content with missing out on all the fun.