Is It More Dangerous to Start Smoking Weed Late in Life?

Here's what the 65-and-ups need to know before they light up

old person rolling a joint
Cannabis use is on the rise amongst senior citizens.
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Seniors are the fastest growing group of cannabis consumers in the United States. Not high-school seniors — senior citizens. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of Americans aged 65 or older who smoked marijuana or ingested edibles increased by 75%.

The usage numbers are still small, especially compared to the 18-to-25 and 26-to-34 cohorts, which see close to 30% of the demographic smoking weed over the course of a month. The older folks only average around 8%.

But that still represents a tremendous shift in thinking from the early 2000s, when cannabis consumption was nearly nonexistent for those of a certain age. The surge can be attributed to the rise of medical dispensaries, successful legalization movements in 16 states (plus the District of Columbia), and — after decades of demonization — more reasonable rhetoric.

The pandemic has also played a role, as The New York Times pointed out in a recent piece. Seniors have leaned on their cannabis (either acquired through legal purchase, or as a medicinal, to treat anything from anxiety to back pain), to get through months of monotony.

Medical professionals caution, though, that research into geriatric use of cannabis is extremely limited. That’s the government’s fault; marijuana’s still a federally outlawed Schedule I drug, so the studies haven’t arrived yet. Long-term effects of the drug remain unknown, and it’s unlikely that cannabis is a panacea for neuropathic pain. Seniors searching for relief (perhaps even steered towards medical marijuana by their children), should try to keep that in mind.

Health experts are mainly worried about short-term concerns, especially during the pandemic. Cannabis consumption can affect motor skills and impair judgment. Aging Americans may be more likely to take a tumble and break a bone while under the influence. It’s also difficult for seniors to register whether THC has entered their bloodstream: older metabolisms are slower metabolisms. That can make it easy to overdo it.

The key here, until the scientists are able to lock down some data at least, is to moderate consumption (in terms of amount and frequency), to smoke or ingest in a safe or supportive environment, and try to avoid mixing with alcohol.

Oh, and, to keep in mind that stuff is way stronger these days. Seniors may not want to hear it, but the THC potency of 20th-century cannabis doesn’t hold a candle to today’s strains.

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