Senior citizens in the United States are smoking more pot than ever. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, or JAMA, found people over the age of 65 were using cannabis over 7 times more frequently in 2016 than they did the decade before. In 2006, only 0.4% of seniors over 65 said they'd used marijuana in the past year; in 2015, the number was 2.4%; and by 2018, 4.2% of seniors say they'd used “marijuana, hashish, pot, grass, [or] hash oil either smoked or ingested.” That's likely due to the fact that older people tend to experience more aches and pains, as well as chronic illnesses. The CDC says pain management is one of the things people use marijuana for most commonly. Other evidence shows THC, the active chemical in marijuana that makes people feel high, might decrease inflammation and muscle control problems as well as pain.

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The study's findings

The study on senior citizens using marijuana is extremely thorough. The researchers at JAMA made sure to account for race, ethnicity, sex, marital status, household income, educational attainment, and each person's health, as part of what it calls a “cross-sectional, nationally representative survey of noninstitutionalized individuals in the United States.” The researchers even took note of tobacco and alcohol use, mental health treatment, and use of cannabis in emergency department settings. All told, the study sample included 14,896 respondents aged 65 or older.  Of those nearly 15,000 seniors, 77.1% were caucasian, and 55.2% were male. Cannabis use compared to previous years rose from 2.4% to 4.2%. The study found drastic increases in use among women; people of all races who have a college education; people with incomes between $20,000 and $49,000 as well as those with above $75,000 a year; and married people.  The study showed more use in people with chronic diseases as well. For instance, people with diabetes used marijuana 180% more frequently in 2018 than in 2015. For any non-specified chronic disease, people reported using cannabis 95.8% more frequently – 2.4% in 2015, versus 4.7% in 2018. Seniors who got mental health treatment have been using cannabis 157.1% more than they used to. 2.9% of people 65 or older who reported past-year alcohol use were registered as marijuana users also in 2015; in 2018, that number was 6.3% - a 117.2% relative increase.

The study warns against mixing cannabis and alcohol

For the group of people who were using both cannabis and alcohol, JAMA warns the risk of doing so is potentially quite harmful. Even so, a 2019 study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy points out people over 50 in Washington State significantly increased their simultaneous use of marijuana and alcohol after recreational cannabis was legalized there in 2012. “Non-cannabis users slightly decreased average number of drinks/day, and cannabis users significantly decreased alcohol-related financial harms,” that study says. During the same period over which JAMA conducted its study, the National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health found approximately 9% of adults in the U.S. aged 50-64 used marijuana in 2015 and 2016 – about triple the number of people over 65 were using the drug. In 2013, that same study showed 7% of people in the 50-64 age group using weed in the year prior, and just 1.4% of senior citizens. The National Institutes of Health shows numerous medical benefits of marijuana use that senior citizens could benefit from. Studies showed patients with glaucoma saw benefits from cannabis lowering the pressure in the eye. The NIH says a 2018 review showed smoked cannabis helped people with Inflammatory Bowel Disease.

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Why seniors might be using cannabis more

In 2015, a study including more than 1,300 participants proved cannabis helps cancer patients who need treatment of nausea. THC helps tic severity in people with Tourette Syndrome, and improves bladder problems in people with multiple sclerosis. Many diseases cause severe disturbances in people's sleep, which cannabis can cure. The potential benefits of marijuana largely overlap with medicines that already exist, but the adverse side effects of cannabis are much lower. That's particularly important since older people are much more vulnerable to the harmful side effects drugs warn about. That's the case for a number of reason. Elderly people tend to have a larger ratio of fat in their bodies, and less muscle, meaning they way less. That means the amount of medicine administered from a pill will be more per pound in a senior citizen than in someone a decade or two younger. Older people's livers and kidneys don't process and clear drugs out as well. All in all, elderly people tend to be more sensitive to drugs, because medicines tend to accumulate in their bodies at higher levels, and for longer spans of time because of the reasons listed above.

Cannabis use is rising faster for younger generations

Though the number of senior citizens using marijuana is growing at a rapid rate, it isn't growing nearly as fast as the use of the drug among younger generations. In 2018, 12.5% of kids age 12-17 reported having used marijuana or hashish in the past year, and a little more than half of them had used it in the month before the study. Those numbers went up to 34.8% and 22.1% respectively when researchers asked the 18-25 age group. One study by Yahoo News and Marist College found that more than half of American adults have tried marijuana in some form at least once within their lifetimes. 22% currently use marijuana, and close to 35 million people in the United States use the drug regularly. Of those adults smoking weed, 52% are millennials, 55% are male, 54% are parents, and 54% earn under $50,000 a year. 56% of Americans overall think weed is socially acceptable; if you cut that survey down to only people who've tried marijuana, the numbers go up to 74% of people saying marijuana is A-okay. And 72% of Americans think regular alcohol use is worse for you than regular marijuana use.  

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