More Baby Boomers Are Getting High as Marijuana Use Among Middle-aged Doubles in a Decade

Marijuana use among older people has doubled in the past decade, according to research.

As more states legalize the drug for both medical and recreational use, social attitudes have relaxed. The latest figures, from 2015 to 2016, showed marijuana use among those 50 to 64 years old doubled to 4.5 percent, compared with 2006 to 2007. And in those 65 and above, it climbed seven times to 0.4 percent.

The team pored over responses from 17,608 adults aged 50 and above who completed the 2015 to 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The true figure is likely to be higher, as underreporting often clouds drug surveys, Joseph Palamar, the study's senior author and an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health, told Newsweek.

The respondents answered whether and when they first used marijuana, and if they had used the drug in the past year. The researchers also noted other factors, including whether the volunteers had any chronic conditions or used other substances.

More older people are using marijuana, according to new research. Getty Images

In the year leading up to the survey, 9 percent of adults between 50 to 64 and 2.9 percent of those 65 and over said they used marijuana. Some 54.5 percent of respondents between 50 and 64 had used the drug at some point in their lives, compared with over a fifth of those in the 65 and above age bracket.

Of the participants who used marijuana in the past year, 15 percent of users aged 50 to 64 and 22.9 percent of those 65 and older said a doctor had prescribed it.

The study also revealed differences in when older people first took the drug. Almost all adults in the younger age group had used marijuana before they were 21, in contrast to the 54.7 percent of those aged 65 and above.

Most older users had at least dabbled in the drug in their teens, and very few of them had picked up the habit for the first time, Palamar explained.

When the researchers crunched the numbers, they were most surprised to find how many among middle-aged and older adults who used marijuana also took unhealthy substances, lead author Dr. Benjamin Han, an assistant professor at the NYU Langone Health, told Newsweek. Those included alcohol, nicotine, cocaine and misused prescription drugs.

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Younger people still get high more than any other demographic. But the authors noted that baby boomers are uniquely experienced when it comes to drugs, compared with previous generations.

Researchers at the New York University School of Medicine and the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research at the NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing collaborated for the study, which was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Palamar warns older adults who use marijuana for the first time, or the first time in a while, to be cautious, as they will not be accustomed to the effects.

He told Newsweek: "In addition, marijuana may have negative effects for older adults, especially those with chronic medical conditions, but these risks are not yet well defined. Also, even cute grandmas are at risk for arrest in many states if caught with marijuana. Older users need to be aware of their local laws."

Tom Freeman, a senior academic fellow in the Addictions Department at King's College London who was not involved in the research, said the study was important because it focused on older adults, who are often overlooked in favor of young people when the harmful effects of cannabis are studied.

"In light of these new findings, it will be important to conduct further research to determine the effects of cannabis in older adulthood, and if this reflects a time of increased susceptibility to cannabis harms," he said.

Ian Hamilton of the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, who was also not involved in the research, told Newsweek that baby boomers are at risk of more rapidly developing problems caused by cannabis than their younger counterparts are.

"They are more likely to have physical and psychological problems which cannabis could exacerbate, particularly respiratory and cardiovascular problems which cannabis use can make worse," he said.

"Many older people are also not familiar with the potency of newer strains of cannabis," Hamilton continued. "The cannabis they might have used 20 to 30 years ago was less psychoactive, so newer strains can catch out this generation in terms of their strength and potential to cause a short-lived psychotic episode."