The latest cannabis research is showing there has been a big upswing in the number of Americans over the age of 65 using marijuana for recreational and medical purposes. 

The latest number on seniors sparking up was published this week in JAMA Internal Medicine by researchers from the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. They estimate that cannabis use in adults age 65 and older increased from 2.4 percent to 4.2 percent in the United States between 2015 and 2018 — a significant increase of 75 percent.

Researchers also found significant increases in subcategories within the grouping of those over 65 like women, individuals of white and nonwhite races/ethnicities, individuals with a college education, individuals with incomes of $20 000 to $49 000 and $75 000 or greater, and married individuals. 

Individuals reporting one or less chronic diseases had a significant relative increase in cannabis use of 95.8 percent, 20 points higher than the general pack. That number wildly validates the idea that seniors are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of using cannabis as medicine, with nearly twice as many willing to admit to the federal government they are using marijuana. 

The Feds you say?

Yes, the Feds. One thing that makes this all particularly fascinating is not just the statistics, but where they are coming from: the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The NSDUH is the annual effort funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to give health professionals and lawmakers a current glimpse into the use of drugs in the United States. Of course, take it with a grain of salt around how honest people actually are when talking about their personal use of illicit substances. 

Researches performed a secondary analysis on the survey results of 14,896 respondents over age 65 to get their data pool. The gender breakdown was 55.2 percent men and 77.1 percent of the participants were white.

So what subgroups of the data saw the biggest jump in use, or at least willingness to admit it? People that were not white. In 2015 only 1.1 percent of people who weren’t white and over the age of 65 were willing to admit to using marijuana in any shape or form. In the most recent numbers researchers have available to them covering 2018, 4.8 percent of nonwhite seniors interviewed now admitted to cannabis use. So the number of old people that aren’t white and willing to tell the government they use marijuana jumped 336 percent. 

That statistic raises a ton of other questions since communities of color have long felt the hardest impact of the war on drugs’ cannabis policies in their neighborhoods. For example, how much of this new mentality is based solely on new laws as opposed to seeing a reduction of enforcement first hand, or the idea admitting to using was more likely to impact their ability to receive social services. 

“Our study shows cannabis use is increasingly popular nationwide among older adults,” said the study’s lead author, Benjamin Han, M.D., M.P.H., in a statement announcing the research. Han is an assistant professor of Geriatric Medicine, Palliative Care and Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “As more older adults use cannabis, whether for therapeutic or recreational purposes, it is important for health care providers to counsel their patients despite the very limited evidence base on the benefits and harms of cannabis use among older adults.”

We were also able to get in touch with Han to ask what was the biggest surprise he found in his research.

“We expected to see an increase in marijuana use in this population overall, but there were some interesting findings when we examined trends among subgroups of older adults,” Han told L.A. Weekly. “We saw large increases among people living with diabetes, but did not find significant increases among people living with other chronic medical diseases or with two or more chronic diseases. We also found large increases among people with higher incomes and education as well.” 

When it comes to the lack of cannabis research out there, especially delays in recent years, much of the finger-pointing is at The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Drug Enforcement Administration. While NIDA funded this research, the two agencies in control of America’s cannabis research supply aren’t able to produce a real medical-grade product or have delayed applications by those who can for years. 

We asked Han how much easier it is to do this kind of data-driven research compared to the bureaucracy of handling the plant to help patients during research. “I am more of a health-services researcher and focused on the epidemiology of substance use by older adults rather than doing clinical research with cannabis,” he replied. “But yes, given existing regulations on marijuana, including it being inappropriately a scheduled I drug, makes it difficult to conduct clinical trials that is absolutely necessary to build the evidence-base needed to better understand the benefits and the risks of marijuana for certain conditions and patients.”

The study’s senior author, Joseph Palamar, MPH, Ph.D., also of the NYU Grossman School, echoed Han’s sentiments on building up research levels, especially when it comes to seniors. 

“We need to continue to study both the risks and benefits of marijuana use, especially among older individuals,” Palamar explained. “This survey also did not ask about vaping of marijuana or THC products, so its possible use was underestimated. We must follow vaping trends closely, among all age groups.”

Companies across the county that have been pointing to more anecdotal evidence of seniors being cannabis’ fastest-growing demographic now have the new study to fall back on. According to popular manufacturer Papa & Barkley, they’re seeing that seniors who purchase at a dispensary order two or three times more than the average consumer at senior dispensary events. So there is even more financial incentive it would appear in educating seniors at the same time. 

You can certainly expect to see more products targeting seniors in the years to come, and more evidence like this study suggesting they’re totally down with that plan.

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