It may not come as any surprise that baby boomers, the same generation that openly smoked marijuana in the face of the establishment they deemed to be oppressive and misguided during their teenage and young adult years, are among the fastest rising cohorts of medical cannabis users in the western world today. These same folks tuned in, dropped out, attended Woodstock, and burned their draft cards and brassieres. Baby boomers, those individuals that were born post-Second World War and bore witness to the radical, societal changes of the 1960s and 1970s, are now collectively in their sixth and seventh decades of life, facing the physical and health issues associated with aging. From Australia to Europe, and especially in North America where they comprise 20 percent of the population, aging individuals are reaching for cannabis in record numbers.

What We Know

Numerous studies around the globe show older citizens are using cannabis more than their parents’ generation did and sometimes in even higher numbers than all subsequent generations as well. Whether or not a state, region, or country has legalized the medicinal use of marijuana is reportedly among the deciding factors regarding where some baby boomers decide on a place to retire.

A recently published (2017) study in the Australasian Journal on Ageing, looked at cannabis use among Australians age 50 and older. Data was collected from individuals in 2004 and then again from different individuals in the same age group in 2013. More of these older Aussies reported using cannabis in 2013 than in 2004. They also found the percentage of individuals studied that didn’t start using cannabis until after the age of 50 was considerably less in 2013 than it was in 2004, meaning more older adults, at least in Australia, are using cannabis starting at younger ages. More interesting is in Australia (possibly other places too), the number of baby boomers using cannabis as a percentage of their respective generation was on the rise, whereas the percentage of cannabis users in all other generations and age groups surveyed is declining.

A January 2017 article in the journal The Gerontologist cited some similar findings from a 2014 American study. Cannabis use has been on the rise among baby boomers in the United States since the turn of the millennium. In 2002, self-reported instances of cannabis use within the prior month of being surveyed among older Americans (50 or older) was at around one percent of the population for that age group. By 2014, that number jumped to 5.1 percent of individuals over the age of 50 who had used cannabis in the prior month of having been surveyed. Whether it was all due to increased usage or a combination of increased usage and increased reporting can only be speculated, but the increase is real. Among that reported 5.1 percent, about 11 percent reported using cannabis for therapeutic and medicinal uses only, 53 percent reported using cannabis for recreational purposes only, and 36 percent reported using cannabis for both in the prior month.

Besides the increased participation of doctors acknowledging the health benefits of cannabis usage among baby boomers, pharmacists are getting involved in this trend as well. Pharmacists realize medicinal cannabis is not going to go away; in fact, its use will likely only increase. Pharmacists know that as health care professionals and advisors, they need to educate themselves on the wide variety of uses an aging population can get out of cannabis for healing. This is important as it allows pharmacists to give patients the advice needed regarding possible interactions with other medications or to help correctly advise their clients on proper dosages. From a September 2015 article in Pharmacy Today, one pharmacist was quoted as saying, “in addition to counseling patients, pharmacists play a vital role in keeping patients safe because physicians are barred from writing prescriptions for cannabis with any of the specific instructions that would normally be found on a prescription.” The hospice industry is also getting involved. In a few instances in two American states, they have successfully lobbied to make cannabis available as one of the options in dealing with end-of-life pain issues and this movement will likely continue to increase.

Why Cannabis Use Among Baby Boomers is Rising

It is not a mystery why boomers are taking larger amounts of cannabis, both self- and professionally-prescribed. Like individuals of any age, they often take it for symptom relief from various ailments including age-related joint pain, glaucoma, and Alzheimer’s disease. Cannabis also combats the nausea of chemotherapy and has been clinically shown to relieve a wide variety of physical symptoms. Some Boomers are even taking it as an alternative to pharmaceuticals. A 2012 Canadian study of compassionate care clubs (dispensaries), found that among older adults who used cannabis pharmaceutically, 68 percent reported doing so as a replacement to other prescription medications.

Baby boomers are not just looking to deal with pain management or get off prescription drugs, some are also seeking cannabis for mental ailments as well. Older adults are more likely to be faced with depression-inducing events such as the death of a spouse or financial burdens.

Though not limited to baby boomers, some of the increased usage of cannabis for medicinal purposes can be found among veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, sufferers of mental illness, and substance abuse users. There is ample representation of all three of these groups among the baby boomer generation and these are some of the people benefitting from cannabis consumption to alleviate some of these conditions.

A subset of the baby boomer group, those aged 50-59, is reportedly using cannabis in more frequent instances than their older peers. This is thought to be because of a more tolerant worldview among this demographic than older boomers and their still-living parents. This phenomenon of higher cannabis usage in individuals within this age bracket has been borne out of Australian and American studies.

Boomers are not just seeking cannabis purely for therapeutic and medicinal benefits. As more states, regions, and countries either decriminalize or legalize cannabis use, medicinal or otherwise, more individuals of all ages are gaining legal access to marijuana. Boomers are consuming cannabis recreationally in higher numbers, just as those in any other age group may be doing as well. As the social stigma continues to decrease and laws surrounding cannabis are continually changing, boomers will continue taking advantage of the relief cannabis can provide.