Senior`s Medical Cannabis Use Growing
Seniors and Cannabis in San Diego County
Senior`s medical cannabis use is growing across the country as more and more seniors discover the medicinal benefits of medical marijuana
One unexpected wrinkle in the emerging market for legal cannabis — rising interest among seniors.
While most seniors do not use marijuana, the population of older users is rapidly growing.
Researchers say cannabis has legitimate medicinal uses, yet worry that patients do not receive the right products or doses.
Some elders have been toking since adolescence, while others are returning to pot after decades of abstinence.
Products with CBDs, a chemical compound found in cannabis and hemp, are popular with people suffering from arthritis.
While some seniors use cannabis for pain relief, others are chasing the mellow buzz of their youth.
Green buds, gray consumers: Here’s the full story:
While legal marijuana is new to California, cannabis is an old companion to Lee.
“I’ve been using since I was a junior in college in, what, 1966?” said the 70-year-old real estate broker, browsing in Torrey Holistics, a Sorrento Valley cannabis dispensary. “I never thought I’d live to see the day it was legal.”
Even before Jan. 1, when California legalized recreational weed, pot was enjoying a gray renaissance. Between 2006 and 2013, the National Survey of Drug Use and Health reported a 250 percent rise in marijuana use by Americans 65 and older. This is still a small number, climbing from 0.4 percent to 1.4 percent of that population, but local dispensaries see plenty of silver-haired shoppers.
“This is probably the most interested — and wariest — group,” said Lincoln Fish, CEO of Outco, noting that the average customer at his Outliers Collective in El Cajon is over 58 years old.
Older consumers add a new wrinkle to the legal cannabis trade. Retirees tend to be less interested in getting high and more interested in getting relief from pain, anxiety and insomnia. Many are skittish about being identified as a user. (Lee and most other seniors interviewed for this story declined to be photographed or give their full names.)
“There’s a stigma around marijuana use,” said Michelle Sexton, a naturopathic doctor assisting in a medical cannabis study at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “It’s got this whole negative connotation. They think they’ll be viewed as druggies or hippies.”
Moreover, a fog of mystery clouds this topic. More research is needed into cannabinoids, marijuana’s active chemical compounds, said Dr. Mark Wallace, chair of the Division of Pain Medicine at UC San Diego Health. Effects vary depending on strains, delivery methods — whether it’s smoked, consumed in brownies and gummies, or administered in tinctures — and the user’s age.
Wallace has no qualms about recommending medical cannabis to his patients. “I’m completely comfortable that it is safe,” he said.
Yet he notes that buying products from a dispensary is a crapshoot. The clerks or “budtenders” are not medical professionals, and seniors often buy products that are too strong or ineffective.
Still, older users — like their younger counterparts — are not exclusively focused on therapy. Some just want to recapture the sweet buzz of youth.
“I smoke every night,” said Terri Graham, 61, a visitor from Wisconsin who had stopped to admire the Cannabus, a black bus with tinted windows that runs from Ocean Beach to a dispensary in Bay Park. “Why not?”
“It’s the high!”
On a recent morning, half the customers inside Torrey Holistics were in their 60s and 70s. Some attended a free Cannabis 101 class on how marijuana products can combat insomnia. Others hoped to ease nagging aches and pains.
That search can be complicated and frustrating. Beth, a 73-year-old Carlsbad resident, originally bought a vape pen to treat her spondylitis, a form of arthritis that targets the spine.
“It was too strong for me,” she said. “I don’t want to get high, I just want to be able to get out of pain.”
This was her second trip to Torrey Holistics, and this time she was considering its edible offerings. “If this doesn’t work,” she said, “I am through.”
Bill, 71, hadn’t bought or used weed for 50 years. That streak ended on this morning, when he purchased cannabis-infused soda, brownies and gummies. He hoped they would reduce the inflammation around his eyelids, a condition known as blepheritis.
Making his dispensary debut, he looked as jittery as a teen buying condoms. But the green buds and sweet fragrance stirred old memories.
“It was hard to go through college in the ’60s without using marijuana,” he said with a laugh.
That’s no exaggeration. In the 1960s and ’70s, Gallup surveyed college students about marijuana usage. Between 1967 and 1971, the number of undergraduates who admitted trying the then-illegal substance zoomed from 5 to 51 percent.
For some, this kindled a lifelong passion.
Walking into Urbn Leaf wearing a faded T-shirt with psychedelic “Yellow Submarine” images, Kerry Durrell looked like Central Casting’s “Aging Hippie.” Now 61, she’s been smoking pot off and on — “I”ve gone through phases” — since 1969.
“It helps me sleep,” she said, inspecting buds at Urbn Leaf. “And it’s recreational.”
For some veteran users, the advent of legal marijuana is like an endless Christmas. Joe, 60, said he’s been smoking weed since his teens. This week, the semi-retired truck driver from Encinitas was thrilled by his first visit to Torrey Holistics.
“Like a kid in a candy shop,” he said. “I just love it.”
Lee, the 70-year-old real estate agent, was equally enthusiastic. Although he grows marijuana at home, he happily bought a pocket-sized pack of edibles for $18.
“The thing I like about buying it here,” he said, “you know what you are getting. When you grow it, sometimes you don’t get high and sometimes you get too high. Here, the quality and consistency seem better.”
Lee’s peers, though, generally frown upon marijuana. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found that only 22 percent of Americans 65 and older favored legalization of marijuana. That number had grown to 30 percent by 2017, but it’s still a minority of seniors.
Among those who disapprove: Bill’s wife. While eager to treat his blepheritis with cannabis-laced soda, he doesn’t expect his spouse to take a sip.
“My wife is too conservative,” he said. “I don’t think she’d indulge.