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Marijuana Use Is Up Among Older Adults

Thu, 04/20/2023 - 11:41

As taboos fall away, there’s fresh curiosity

Older adults, defined generally as people age 65 and up, are using marijuana recreationally or medicinally at increasing rates — including about one in five Medicare enrollees, according to a 2022 survey.
Carissa Katz

In a 1969 Gallup poll, the first time the organization asked about illegal drug use, 4 percent of adult respondents said they had tried marijuana. By 1973, 12 percent of adults said they had tried it, and another Gallup poll four years later concluded the number was up to about 24 percent.

Fast-forward to 2021, when a survey by the United States Department of Health and Human Services found that 46 percent of adults say they have tried marijuana at least once.

Those coming of age in the 1960s and ‘70s have either arrived at retirement or are about to enter that stage of life soon, comprising a demographic that studies show is both returning to marijuana and trying it for the first time. In April 2022, a patient survey conducted by Medicare — which at the time had about 65 million enrollees — found that one in five Medicare recipients uses medical marijuana.

It coincides with the rising number of states that have legalized medical and/or recreational marijuana in the last decade: As of last Thursday, 21 states and Washington, D.C., allow its recreational use, while 17 others have legalized medical uses, according to the Pew Research Center. It’s timely news, given that today is 4/20, a sort of unofficial holiday dedicated to the appreciation of pot.

In New York, adults’ use of marijuana is no longer illegal.

“It’s the legalization that is piquing people’s curiosity once again,” said David Falkowski, a cannabis expert, grower of industrial hemp, and producer and seller of CBD (cannabidiol) products at his Open Minded Organics (OMO) farm in Bridgehampton. CBD and marijuana are both derived from the Cannabis sativa plant, of which there are countless species containing a wide variety of levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the psychoactive component of the plant; the primary difference is that the varieties producing CBD products have only trace amounts of THC.

Mr. Falkowski wasn’t joking when he quipped, “Old people love weed.” He hears of older people who use it for help sleeping, to ease anxiety, or to reduce physical pain, in addition to wanting a fun or relaxing experience.

“There are people who are discovering the wellness stuff for the first time — especially CBD — and there are people now who might have smoked pot back in the day, coming back for both recreational and wellness reasons. It’s kind of twofold,” he said.

At OMO the Apothecary in Sag Harbor, which focuses on CBD products, Mr. Falkowski gets a fair number of inquiries about marijuana. “What’s really kind of cute is a lot of little older ladies who come in with smiles” asking about legal pot, he said. Stressing that he is neither a doctor nor a dispensary, he said he directs them to their own doctors “for a recommendation for a medical card” or to go to New York City, “where there are a handful of shops to legally purchase the products.”

There are many health concerns, however, for older adults using marijuana. In January, researchers at the University of California in San Diego released a study looking into the skyrocketing instances of cannabis-related emergency-room visits among people 65 and older. From 2005 to 2018, they found, E.R. visits rose a jaw-dropping 1,808 percent across California’s hospitals. The most common issues were “dizziness and falls, heart palpitations, panic attacks, confusion, anxiety, or worsening of underlying lung diseases,” the researchers said in their study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Dr. Jarid Pachter, a Stony Brook University physician who practices family and addiction medicine in Southold, warns that “marijuana today is not what it was 40 years ago. The potency is greater than it was before. And people in their 60s may have health issues that they didn’t have in their 30s or 40s, or their 20s or teens.”

“I would not advocate recreational use for health whatsoever,” Dr. Pachter told The Star. “I also want to point out that in 2023 there is actually no good reason for you to be smoking marijuana. If we want to say that it’s a safe product, if you’re inhaling something into your lungs and you’re 60-plus years old, there is nothing good about that for your respiratory system. It comes in many different forms now — tinctures, edibles, gummies.”

“But depending on the person, there can be ‘safe’ ways to use it,” he later continued. “Be careful. Like anything else, go slow. Do not have the whole thing. Take a little bit and get your feet wet, see how you feel, and slowly go up if you can tolerate it. And take a break — don’t start doing it every night. Don’t mix it with other products like alcohol, especially the first couple of times that you want to partake in it. I have had a number of older patients who have done that, and those are the patients who wind up in an emergency room.”

That marijuana isn’t addictive is a myth, Dr. Pachter says. “Oftentimes, actually, the patients are coming to the office with other complaints and not realizing they have a marijuana use disorder. They think they are using it in a positive way. . . . If you’re doing it on a daily basis because of something else, that may indicate that you have a bigger problem than you’re even initially aware of.”

Sarah Halweil, a Sag Harbor nurse who previously worked in labor and delivery care, has now shifted her focus to helping people understand and safely use cannabis, and says that “there’s a more sophisticated way to approach it rather than just smoking a joint and getting too much THC.”

“I am the person who helps people who need hand holding find the things for them that help ease their symptoms,” she said. “It’s so multipronged. What kind of access do they have? Do they have access to good cannabis? The market is pretty wide open in New York, but there is a lot of bad stuff out there.”

There’s still somewhat of a stigma to openly talking about using it, she acknowledged. And she said it’s important that people be upfront with their physicians about it. “If they have a lot of medications they already take — there are a few that can be contraindicated — and if someone is going to add cannabis, they should let their primary-care doctor know.”

Ms. Halweil said safely using marijuana can be compatible with the lifestyle changes people make as they age. “The older patients are amazing to me,” she said. “It is very helpful for many people. . . . There’s an openness and a move toward plant medicine in general.”

 

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