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Marijuana Use Among Boomers Is Increasing

Changing attitudes and more access fuel pot smoking habits of those 50-plus

Close-up of mature woman puffing on a marijuana joint.

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Boomers are smoking marijuana — again — pushing pot use among older Americans to record numbers. Nine percent of U.S. adults ages 50-64 have smoked pot at least once during the survey year, double the percentage measured about a decade ago. Three percent of those 65-plus admitted cannabis use, too, more than seven times the percentage rate of a decade ago, according to a study published this week in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

What’s not surprising: Most of those older smokers are not first-time users.

“The baby boomer generation has higher rates of substance use (including marijuana) compared to any generation preceding them. Therefore, as this generation gets older, we will see higher rates of marijuana use by older adults,” wrote lead author Benjamin Han, M.D., an assistant professor in the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care, and in the Department of Population Health, at NYU Langone Health, in an email to AARP.

Researchers analyzed data from 17,608 adults age 50-plus who took the 2015-16 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This annual survey asks respondents questions about marijuana (noting the date of first use), illicit and prescription drug and alcohol use, as well as demographic information and overall health. 

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One issue of concern flagged by the study was the high rates of unhealthy substance use (alcohol, tobacco, prescription drug misuse) among marijuana users versus nonusers. “This polysubstance use could be particularly dangerous,” Han noted. “I think we need to focus on why there is this population of older marijuana users who use other substances, and how we can decrease their risks for poor outcomes through increased screening of substance use and treatment if indicated.”

There are many factors contributing to the growing levels of cannabis use in this age group, researchers said. About 15 percent of users ages 50-64 and 22.9 percent of those 65 and older reported that marijuana was recommended by a doctor for medical reasons.

“I believe legalization has changed attitudes regarding marijuana,” Han said. “But like all medications (including over-the-counter medications) the benefits of marijuana use need to outweigh the risks for our older patients. Unfortunately, marijuana has not yet been rigorously studied to better understand the risks and benefits. While I believe marijuana can be useful for some medical problems, just because it is legalized in some states does not mean it is risk-free.”