SAN DIEGO –– One unexpected wrinkle in the emerging market for legal cannabis is the rising interest among seniors.
While most seniors do not use marijuana, the population of older users is rapidly growing.
Researchers say cannabis has legitimate medical uses, yet worry that patients do not get the right products or doses.
Some elders have been smoking marijuana since adolescence, while others are returning after decades of abstinence.
Products with CBDs, a chemical compound found in cannabis and hemp, are popular with people suffering from arthritis.
While some seniors use cannabis for pain relief, others are chasing the mellow buzz of their youth.
While legal marijuana is new to California, cannabis is an old companion to Lee.
“I’ve been using since I was a junior in college in, what, 1966?” said the 70-year-old real estate broker, browsing in Torrey Holistics, a Sorrento Valley cannabis dispensary. “I never thought I’d live to see the day it was legal.”
Even before Jan. 1, when California legalized recreational marijuana, it was enjoying a gray renaissance. Between 2006 and 2013, the National Survey of Drug Use and Health reported a 250 percent rise in marijuana use by Americans 65 and older. This is still a small number, climbing from 0.4 percent to 1.4 percent of that population, but local dispensaries see plenty of silver-haired shoppers.
“This is probably the most interested — and wariest — group,” said Lincoln Fish, CEO of Outco, noting that the average customer at his Outliers Collective in El Cajon is over 58 years old.
Older consumers add a new aspect to the legal cannabis trade. Retirees tend to be less interested in getting high and more interested in getting relief from pain, anxiety and insomnia. Many are skittish about being identified as a user. (Lee and most of the other seniors interviewed for this story declined to be photographed or give their full names.)
“There’s a stigma around marijuana use,” said Michelle Sexton, a naturopathic doctor assisting in a medical cannabis study at the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego. “It’s got this whole negative connotation. They think they’ll be viewed as druggies or hippies.”
Moreover, a fog of mystery clouds this topic. More research is needed into cannabinoids, marijuana’s active chemical compounds, said Dr. Mark Wallace, chair of the pain medicine division at UC San Diego Health. Effects vary depending on strains, delivery methods — whether it’s smoked, consumed in brownies and gummies, or administered in tinctures — and the user’s age.
Wallace has no qualms about recommending medical cannabis to his patients. “I’m completely comfortable that it is safe,” he said.
Yet he notes that buying products from a dispensary is a crapshoot. The clerks are not medical professionals, and seniors often buy products that are too strong or ineffective.
Still, older users — like their younger counterparts — are not exclusively focused on therapy. Some just want to recapture the sweet buzz of youth.
On a recent morning, half the customers at Torrey Holistics were in their 60s and 70s. Some attended a free Cannabis 101 class on how marijuana products can combat insomnia. Others hoped to ease nagging aches and pains.
That search can be complicated and frustrating. Beth, a 73-year-old Carlsbad resident, originally bought a vape pen to treat her spondylitis, a form of arthritis that targets the spine.
“It was too strong for me,” she said. “I don’t want to get high; I just want to be able to get out of pain.”
This was her second trip to Torrey Holistics, and this time she was considering its edible offerings. “If this doesn’t work, I am through,” she said.
Bill, 71, hadn’t bought or used marijuana for 50 years. That streak ended on this morning, when he purchased cannabis-infused soda, brownies and gummies. He hoped they would reduce the inflammation around his eyelids, a condition known as blepheritis.
The green buds and sweet fragrance stirred old memories.
“It was hard to go through college in the ’60s without using marijuana,” he said with a laugh.
That’s no exaggeration. In the 1960s and ’70s, Gallup surveyed college students about marijuana use. Between 1967 and 1971, the number of undergraduates who admitted trying the then-illegal substance zoomed from 5 to 51 percent.
For some, this kindled a lifelong passion.
Walking into Urbn Leaf wearing a faded T-shirt with “Yellow Submarine” images, Kerry Durrell looked like central casting’s aging hippie. Now 61, she’s been smoking marijuana off and on — “I’ve gone through phases” –– since 1969.
“It helps me sleep,” she said, inspecting buds at Urbn Leaf. “And it’s recreational.”
Older people, though, generally frown on marijuana. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found that only 22 percent of Americans 65 and older favored legalization of marijuana. That number had grown to 30 percent by 2017, but it’s still a minority.
Among those who disapprove is Bill’s wife. While eager to treat his blepheritis with cannabis-laced soda, he doesn’t expect his spouse to take a sip.
“My wife is too conservative,” he said. “I don’t think she’d indulge.”
In a classroom at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in North Park, a dozen men and women formed a circle and reached out to each other.
“I put my hand in yours and together we can do what we could never do alone,” they said in unison. “No longer is there a sense of hopelessness.”
This was the Tuesday night “Beginner’s Meeting” of Marijuana Anonymous, a 12-step program for people whose marijuana use has become a problem. Getting high, they say, became more important than careers, relationships and responsibilities.
The leader of this meeting was Henry, 58. Before hitting bottom, Henry said, marijuana was the center of his life. Some months, he spent his mortgage money on cannabis. He credited Marijuana Anonymous with helping him to recover his self-respect and sense of purpose.
“I’ve been sober for eight years, four months and about 16 days,” he said.
Studies have not shown cannabis to be physically addictive, said Markus Roggen, a chemist and Outco’s vice president of extraction. “But there might be signs of mental addiction,” he said.
When properly dosed, UC San Diego’s Wallace said, cannabis is often a better choice than more traditional painkillers. “I see medical cannabis as a more conservative treatment than opioids,” he said.
At the university’s pain clinic, he urges patients to shelve any mental images of Grateful Dead concerts or Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper toking in “Easy Rider.” Instead, he said, cannabis should be seen as another pharmaceutical.
He starts clients on “microdoses,” and then adjusts the amount. This is a gradual process, he said, because it is easy to over- and under-prescribe THC, a mood-enhancing and painkilling compound in marijuana.
“As THC levels go up, the pain will reduce, until you get too much THC and then the pain will increase,” he said.
CBD, another cannabinoid or chemical compound in cannabis, has a strong following among seniors, in part because it has no intoxicating effect.
“It’s not about smoking a joint any more,” said Ruthie Edelson, marketing director at Torrey Holistics. That company’s CBD-infused rubbing creams have been embraced by people afflicted by arthritis. “All of our products have a high content of CBD and a very low content of THC. That’s where you get the best medicinal benefit.”
Because CBDs are also found in hemp, products with these cannabinoids have been legal for years. San Diego-based KB Pure Essentials sells CBD-rich massage oils, pain salves, tinctures, deodorants and pet shampoos since 2015.
“We have a bunch of older lady customers,” said KB Pure Essentials co-founder Brooke Brun, who takes a CBD tincture with prescription medicines to control her epilepsy. “A lot of them use it for inflammation, arthritis. A lot take it every day as a wellness supplement.”
Yet Urbn Leaf head buyer Josh Bubeck advises customers they’ll get better results with products containing both CBD and THC. And no matter what seniors buy, he cautions them to go slow.
“The older consumer, some of them haven’t tried cannabis for 30 years,” Bubeck said. “They should start with microdoses. The five milligram gummy has been very popular with the older consumer.”