A new JAMA Internal Medicine study found that cannabis use has surged among older adults.
The study, from New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, was published Monday. Researchers found that, between 2015 and 2018—a time during which a slew of states across the US legalized cannabis for medical and adult use—cannabis consumption among adults aged 65 and older increased from 2.4 percent to 4.2 percent, “a significant increase of 75 percent.”
Researchers, who analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, also found increases in cannabis use among specific subgroups, too, including women, minorities, respondents whose families were higher earning, and people struggling with mental health.
Importantly, the survey only asked respondents about their consumption of “marijuana,” “hashish,” “pot,” “grass,” or “hash oil,” but did not ask about vaporized products, for example, though the study’s senior author doesn’t think those limitations play a big role in the study’s outcomes.
“I don’t think the lack of a vaping question severely affects estimates of use, as other research suggests that most people who vape also use via other methods,” Joseph Palamar, an associate professor of population health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, and the study’s senior author, told Cannabis Wire.
It’s unclear whether specific areas of the country—say, California or Colorado—saw higher percentages of use among older adults. It’s also unclear whether older adults are gravitating toward cannabis for medical reasons, or if they’re joining the adult use markets in states that have full legalization.
“We believe use will continue to increase as ‘social acceptability’ of weed use increases among older populations. I think the majority of use among older people is for medical reasons, although we need more research to confirm this. I think more older people who use weed are using for things like sleep,” Palamar said.
The latest Pew Research Center poll, released in November, found that two-thirds of Americans now support legalization, and that 63 percent of Baby Boomers are in favor of legalization. The age bracket expressing the least support is the “Silent Generation,” or adults born between 1928 and 1945.
This year could see a number of states passing adult use or medical cannabis legalization laws, and with it, the potential for increased cannabis use among adults 65 and older.
“Older adults are especially vulnerable to potential adverse effects from cannabis, and with their increase in cannabis use, there is an urgent need to better understand both the benefits and risks of cannabis use in this population,” the study noted.
The study prompts some interesting questions: are more older people consuming cannabis for the first time, or is a stigma around cannabis lifting as laws continue to shift, and people feel more comfortable talking about their use? Or is it that longtime cannabis consumers are just getting older?
“We believe the majority of older people who use weed aren’t recent initiates. At least this is what our previous studies suggest. I think the increases are mainly driven by boomers who use weed aging into the 65 and older age bracket,” Palamar said.
When asked if Palamar will continue to conduct cannabis-related research, Palamar said “I’m sure we will,” but added that there were no specific studies yet planned.
“I’m sure the lead author will want us to look at some more weed data, but I honestly find the topic of marijuana a little boring. We’re in 2020 and I honestly don’t think increases in marijuana use should be considered such a big deal,” Palamar said.