Last summer, as part of an effort to help seniors learn more about cannabis, Canopy Growth Corp. loaded a bus at a nursing home and brought residents on a field trip to its Ontario, Canada, growing operation. They’re not alone when it comes to catering to the over-sixty-five crowd. In some states, dispensaries offer bingo and lunch on site and hold Cannabis 101 lectures at local nursing homes, senior living centers, and retirement communities.
Many industry experts say the sixty-five and older crowd is one of the fastest growing segments of the market. That’s because baby boomers, the generation that invented youth culture, are rediscovering the joys of cannabis as they hit retirement age. A study published last year found cannabis use among seniors is seven times higher than a decade ago. Among boomers in general, who started turning sixty-five in 2011, cannabis use increased by 25 percent in 2018. And they outspent everyone else, too, according to cannabis delivery service Eaze’s “State of Cannabis 2018” report.
It makes sense. For one thing, many boomers already are familiar with cannabis, even if they haven’t used it in decades. Now that they’re retired—the oldest boomers are in their seventies—they have more time on their hands for recreational pursuits, including trying out the wide variety of new cannabis options. And they don’t have to worry about drug testing at work. (Cannabis remains an “illicit” Schedule I drug at the federal level, equated with heroin and MDMA.)
Seniors are using cannabis to help deal with maladies that come hand-in-hand with old age. Eaze found that 76 percent of boomers reduced or eliminated over-the-counter pain meds after switching to cannabis. At least 25 percent of those who use cannabis say they use it to relieve chronic pain and sleeplessness. Cannabis also has the potential to reduce seniors’ dependency on opioids. A study published last year by the JAMA Network found seniors on Medicare filled 14-percent fewer prescriptions for opioids after medical marijuana became available in their states.
The lead author said results were the most dramatic when the state legalized cannabis for medical and other uses. W. David Bradford, an economist at the University of Georgia, also said states with a dispensary program saw about double the decrease as those without dispensaries. Medicare Part D prescriptions (a benefit mostly for seniors) for opioids fell by 3.74 million daily doses per year when medical cannabis dispensaries opened, but only by 1.79 million daily doses in states that only allowed home cultivation. As Bradford told one journalist, there’s a big difference between picking up a prescription at the pharmacy and trying to grow plants at home.
Cannabis has fewer side effects than many of the drugs taken to ease depression, anxiety, pain, and other chronic issues common in seniors and new products, including vapes, edibles, and cannabis drinks, are making it easier for seniors to consume cannabis. There’s no tell-tale lingering smell, and those delivery systems don’t require extra paraphernalia, so they’re easier to carry and consume.
There even is some evidence cannabis may benefit aging brains. Researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany found small doses of THC actually improved cognition in older mice.
It’s not all rosy news. Seniors new to the plant are more likely to ingest too much cannabis, especially with edibles, and can feel the effects for longer than younger consumers. And unlike opioids, Medicare won’t reimburse seniors for their cannabis purchases (yet).
Potency is another area where boomers can get tripped up. About 55 percent of consumers over the age of sixty-five tried cannabis before they were twenty-one, but the cannabis of the 1960s was far less potent than today’s carefully cultivated product. And that can be a problem because older bodies can’t metabolize cannabis as easily as they did in their youth. Cannabis also can react with common senior medications, leading to changes in blood pressure, alertness, and retention.
Those issues likely can be resolved easily by educating older consumers, because if the past year is any indication, cannabis use by seniors will continue to grow at a rapid pace.
Jason Vegotsky is an entrepreneur with an extensive background in sales and business development. As chief revenue officer for Kush Supply Co. he leads a team of over forty-five sales professionals; handles operations, shared services, and project management; and is responsible for expanding the company’s nationwide physical presence.