Why Growing Numbers of Baby Boomers and the Elderly Are Smoking Pot


Conventional wisdom dictates that as younger generations slowly replace the old, conservative social traditions are jettisoned.

This may be true for issues such as gay marriage, where there are clear divisions among younger and older voters, but when it comes to marijuana reform, the evidence indicates that simplistic divisions of opinion along age lines don't apply for pot.

Earlier this week, an AP wire article picked up a lot of buzz in the news-cycle, with a title and premise meant to shock the mainstream: "Marijuana Use by Seniors Goes up as Boomers Age."

The AP article was pegged to a December report released by the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It revealed that the number of Americans over 50 who reported consuming cannabis in the year prior to the study had gone up from 1.9 percent to 2.9 percent in the period from 2002 to 2008.

This is supported by earlier polling results. In February 2009, a Zogby poll found that voters aged 50 to 64 were almost equally divided in their support for marijuana legalization at 48 percent. In that same poll, young voters aged 18 to 29 were the cohort who most enthusiastically supported legalization, at 55 percent. But overall support among all ages came in at 44 percent.

So who brought the average down? Don't lay the blame on the elderly. In fact, as early as 2004, an AARP poll found that 72 percent of its members (all 50-plus, with the lion's share over 65) supported marijuana for medical purposes, indicating their understanding of the benefits of legal cannabis availability.

Some expert observers in the marijuana reform movement believe the bulk of marijuana detractors are made up of 30- and 40-somethings -- adults of parenting age. And as more of the 65-and-over crowd is populated by baby boomers, it appears that in the not-too-distant future every age demographic including the elderly will approve of marijuana reform more than Americans in their 30s and 40s.

"These are people who have had children, and whether they used marijuana in the past or not, they've become very concerned that young children will have access to it," says Paul Armentano, deputy national director of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "They've been swayed by prohibition and are leery of the option to end it, even though controlling and regulating marijuana would provide less access to children."

In the breakdown of the 2009 Zogby poll, which NORML allowed AlterNet to review, 38.7 percent of respondents 65 and older approved of taxing and regulating marijuana for adults. A low number, but compare it to the group aged 30 to 49, who approved it at 38.2 percent. Nearly the same, but still lower. And it ought to be noted that in an earlier Zogby poll, commissioned by NORML in 2006, 30- to 49-year-olds stood out even more starkly, opposing marijuana legalization at 58 percent, while the 65-plus crowd opposed it at 52 percent; approximately two-thirds of the young adult and boomer cohorts approved.

And just as children are the reason many younger parents are against marijuana reform, offspring (or the lack of them) may also be behind why greater numbers of aging boomers are embracing marijuana -- most or all of their kids have left the nest.

This makes sense to George Rohrbacher, a 61-year-old cattle rancher in Eastern Washington state who smokes weed every day. When his kids -- now 25 to 35 -- were growing up, marijuana was something he had to keep a secret.

"Children under 18 don't need to be high on anything other than life," Rohrbacher says. His wife Ann espouses the same belief and quit marijuana just before 1976, when they had their first child. She later became a school superintendent.

Although Rohrbacher didn't give up the herb except for small stretches of time (such as when he served in the Washington state senate), it wasn't something he shared with his kids. "I didn't want them to have to defend me in the DARE program at school," he says. "But when my youngest son was 19 and off to college, I went from completely undercover to the opposite of that."

Today an advocate for marijuana legalization, Rohrbacher speaks to many baby boomers who, like his wife, gave up pot. "Due to career choices, family-raising choices, they've not imbibed in years and they tell me they can't wait until they get to that spot in their career or family lives when they can go back to smoking pot," he says.

SAMHSA's study showed that past year marijuana use among those aged 55 to 59 tripled from 1.6 percent in 2002 to 5.1 percent in 2008. Nearly 9 percent of men aged 50 to 54 admitted to using marijuana in the past year, bringing that demographic's level of cannabis use to nearly the same 10 percent rate that the general U.S. population is estimated to consume pot. While SAMHSA has jumped to the alarm on this trend, suggesting that "by the year 2020, the number of persons needing treatment for a substance abuse disorder will double among persons aged 50 or older," the reality of the matter is that SAMHSA's dire prognosis may more realistically apply to aging Americans who use harder drugs like cocaine or meth -- not cannabis consumers.

Boomers' enthusiasm for weed is likely due to their being the first generation to experience widespread marijuana use in their youth. Nearly everyone smoked it or knew someone who did. If what Rohrbacher has observed is true, many of them gave it up not because they didn't like it anymore, but because they felt it might interfere in their efforts to raise families and maintain jobs where drug testing is a concern. After all, legal and salary ramifications are much more significant once you have a family to raise and support.

As the nation's 78 million boomers go grayer, they will also return to pot to soften the pains of aging. "I played a lot of sports when I was younger and I have aches now -- plain old aches from sleeping wrong or doing something wrong -- and those aches are as bad as various moments on the football field years ago," Rohrbacher said. "And I'd rather smoke marijuana than reach for a pharmaceutical."

Rohrbacher isn't alone. Though pharmaceuticals are marketed heavily to aging Americans, among all adults over 50 who admitted to using some kind of illegal substance in the previous year -- 4.3 million adults, or 5.7 percent of adults in that age range -- 44.9 percent admitted to using marijuana, compared to 33.4 percent who'd used prescription drugs for non-medical use.

And in addition to lessening the pain brought on by common ailments like joint pain and menopause, one study found that cannabis might prevent osteoporosis in the elderly. (Interestingly, it may weaken bones in younger people.)

Americans, as a whole, are trending toward marijuana legalization. By mid-last year, a few polls showed that the taxing and regulating of cannabis had support from a majority of Americans for the first time ever. The majorities are slim, but they're majorities nonetheless.

And with an enormous aging population that is more accepting of pot legalization and more clearly understands its benefits and the downsides to its prohibition, that majority may grow to be a decisive one in the public debate, even if today's -- and tomorrow's -- parents might be the last ones to be dragged on board.

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