Turning a New Leaf: Cannabis Use Growing Fastest Among Seniors

Jay Fox
Oct 17, 2018 4:38:04 PM

The cannabis industry continues to experience explosive growth in the states that have legalized medicinal or recreational cannabis. Investors, entrepreneurs, scientists, and tech wizards are not only hoping to create the bedrock brands that consumers come to know and trust; they are also helping create unique infrastructures capable of overseeing the way cannabis is grown, distributed, and processed. This flood of interest and investment into the once illicit cannabis industry has become known as the Green Rush.

Just who is fueling the demand, though? The simple answer is young adults and, following suit as stigmas and misconceptions change, the older generation as well.

Statistically speaking, the younger a person is, the more likely it is that they will agree with legalization and have a tolerant view of cannabis usage. This is particularly true with millennials and members of Generation X, as they either came of age or entered adulthood as the legalization of medicinal cannabis became increasingly common. In addition to reaching maturity at a time when medicinal cannabis was becoming more socially acceptable, they also did not experience the anti-cannabis propaganda campaigns to which many seniors were exposed in their youth (the film Reefer Madness and the efforts of Harry J. Anslinger, then the Director of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, being the most notable examples).

In addition to changing views on medicinal cannabis, the public opinion on recreational cannabis has become more positive. Within a little more than a decade, perceptions have flipped. As of 2006, 32 percent supported legalization and 60 percent opposed. By 2017, 61 percent said they supported legalization and only 37 percent opposed it. Predictably, there are clear generational disparities, with younger generations being more supportive of legalization than older generations. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2017 found that majorities of Millennials (70 percent), Gen Xers (66 percent), and Baby Boomers (56 percent) supported full legalization. For members of the Silent Generation, those born between 1928 and 1945, only 35 percent said they favored legalization. 58 percent of those polled opposed it.

It is no surprise, then, that cannabis usage is also more popular among younger people. Nationwide, 18 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 said they use cannabis as of July 2017. The same survey found that 10 percent of Americans aged 30 to 49 used cannabis, that 8 percent of those 50 to 64 used it, and that only 3 percent of seniors aged 65 or older reported using it.

Though the legalization of recreational cannabis remains controversial for some, medicinal cannabis enjoys near universal acceptance. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 94 percent of Americans support legalizing medical cannabis.

These trends among younger Americans may have also, however, led, in part, to an increase in cannabis use among older Americans. One study out of the University of Florida found that, between 2006 and 2013, past year usage increased 50 percent among people over the age of 50. Another study published in Addiction found that two older groups of Americans, those between the age of 50 and 59 and those over 60, are more than 20 times more likely to use cannabis now than they were 30 years ago.

In fact, while younger people are buying the most cannabis, the growth in cannabis usage is most pronounced in more elderly age groups.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that the stigma surrounding cannabis is not as strong as it once was among older Americans. Additionally, the medical community has begun embracing cannabis over the last few years. Currently, more than 75 percent of older Americans believe that regular cannabis consumption poses only a slight risk to users or no risk at all.

While some of these individuals must be choosing to use cannabis recreationally, a far larger portion of this demographic is likely turning to cannabis because they are learning of its therapeutic effects. It has been shown to be most effective at treating symptoms that frequently affect seniors, such as joint pain, muscle spasms, anxiety, insomnia, and loss of appetite. Issues of chronic pain, which are especially prevalent among the elderly, could also be treated with cannabis in some cases.

Katie Flannery is confident that this trend will continue. She is the Co-founder and Head of Partnerships of solo* sciences, a start-up situated at the intersection of the cannabis and the tech industries that is working with brands to bring more transparency and quality assurance to world of cannabis. “A lot of seniors have become more open to the notion of cannabis as a medicine. On top of the growing body of studies showing its benefits, there’s also more anecdotal evidence out there than there once was. They’re hearing from friends and family that cannabis really works.”

As the stigma evaporates and more studies on the benefits of cannabis are completed, it is almost certain that the number of seniors who use cannabis will see tremendous growth. This could be fueled further by changing attitudes toward opioids. While opioids do effectively manage chronic pain, rates of abuse are extremely high and such abuse can be fatal. Consequently, federal guidelines are now urging medical professionals to limit how frequently they prescribe opioids to effectively manage chronic pain and to find alternatives. Cannabis could be one such alternative. This could also lead to a significant increase in the number of seniors who use cannabis.

That younger Americans consume more cannabis than older Americans is an undisputed fact. However, changes in attitudes towards cannabis usage and how chronic pain is treated could make cannabis usage both more acceptable and more common among seniors. This would lead to a reduced disparity of usage rates between the two groups, largely because the percentage of younger people who use cannabis appears to be plateauing. Eventually, it is possible that the former group will come to represent a more significant share of cannabis users and provide additional fuel for the growth of the industry. After all, there are approximately 58 million Americans above the age of 55 living in states where recreational or medicinal cannabis is legal.

For those hoping to stake a claim in the next frontier of the Green Rush, it would be wise to consider catering to this demographic.

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