As of 2020, 33 states have legalized at least one form of cannabis; its use is spreading across all age ranges of adults. Several studies have shown surprisingly strong uptake by senior citizens across the country, increasing each year. As many as 1 in 20 senior citizens in America are exploring marijuana products. Let's take a look at how they’re using them and why.

Why Is Cannabis Use Increasing?

Cannabis, the plant from which marijuana is refined, may help ease symptoms of some conditions such as chronic pain and insomnia. Acceptance among the general public and some in the medical community has been growing in recent years. Even AARP, one of the most trusted resources for seniors, now supports medicinal use in states where it is legal.

Medical professionals consulted by AARP were optimistic. Peter Grinspoon, MD, a Harvard Medical School professor, explained, “It makes sense to try cannabis when you consider the track record of other medications a lot of older adults take, especially for pain, sleep and anxiety…. Cannabis can be as effective as anything.” Daniel Reingold, CEO of RiverSpring Health in Riverdale, NY, had high praise after a pilot program was completed at this Hebrew Home facility: “The benefits are nothing short of amazing and should be more widely available to residents of long-term care facilities."

How Do Seniors Get the Marijuana?

To get to the heart of the question, we went to the source: marijuana dispensaries. Legalization happens state-by-state, with a patchwork of laws regulating purchase and use.

In Oklahoma, cannabis was legalized for medicinal use in 2018. Corbin Wyatt, CEO of Likewise Cannabis in Oklahoma City, told us that patients 50 and older make up a little under 15% of his clients and often work closely with his staff to find the right products.

“We generally work with seniors more often than other age groups when it comes to knowledge on cannabis products. What we've found is that, in general, senior citizens are less likely to conduct internet-based research surrounding cannabis and generally prefer to speak to team members at the store to acquire knowledge. Patients beneath the senior citizen mark are generally more comfortable and seasoned in internet research and already have a general idea about which products and ingestion methods they're interested in trying.”

The situation is a little different in California, where KOLAS Dispensaries’ Marketing and Communications Director Eric Luchini estimated that senior citizens made up 35 to 50% of their customers. The number continues to grow with each year since legalization in 2018, an increase he believes comes from three key sources: “Education and continual social acceptance are two big factors in that surge, along with increasing side effects from pharmaceutical products.”

At KOLAS, “Older customers are naturally more inquisitive and less 'street' informed. They are more concerned about what they are putting in their bodies. They ask more questions, have done initial research on their own, and spend longer times in-store getting proper information,” he said. “Most doctors provide limited information - more offering a suggestion to try cannabis. A few that I am aware of actually recommend CBD, but not other products beyond that.”

What Are They Using?

Marijuana is available in many forms. While the popular image may be of smoking joints and pipe leaves, the market has expanded to offer edibles, ointments, drinks and more.

For Likewise, “Older patrons seem to generally prefer either the 'legacy' cannabis products like flower and edibles or the tincture/topical/capsule line of cannabis infused products that are closer to what they're used to using on a regular basis”

In Mr. Luchini’s market, even among older users, “Flower is still the main product of choice, but there is a definite increase in non-smokable products (especially with the advent of COVID): vapes, edibles, and beverages are on a significant rise.”

Is Marijuana Safe Though?

This is where things get tricky. Marijuana’s relatively poor public reputation and long-time illegal status have destined research to be scarce. In an interview with AARP, University of Colorado geriatrician Hillary Lum, MD, lamented, “I’m in an information vacuum. We don’t have many clinical studies to show effectiveness. Medical schools, pharmacy schools and nursing schools haven’t taught it. It’s not in the pharmacy database we use for prescribing, so I don’t have a lot of information about potential drug interactions and side effects.”

Dispensaries rely on industry research for medical guidance. Mr. Wyatt explained, “Many of the companies that we work with like Mary's Medicinals have advisory boards containing prominent physicians and pharmacists who help disperse information surrounding product dosing and safe usage to our team members who then relay that information to our patients.”

When asked about drug interactions, Mr. Luchini said, “There are currently no doctors or pharmacists on staff in any California dispensaries that I am aware of, though some may have access to medical ‘advisers’.” He stressed that “we make NO medical/supplemental recommendations: we provide suggestions based on either personal experience and industry research or other customer's personal claims and testimonials” and that “If a customer mentions or questions the combination of their medications with cannabis, we always urge them to check with their doctor first before consuming a cannabis product.”

So far, drug interactions have not been an issue for Likewise. “To date, we've seen over 80,000 unique patients in Oklahoma and have yet to have any patients inform us of any issues in regard to cannabis providing a negative experience when used in tandem to their other prescribed medications.”

Advocacy groups are calling for more research. AARP, for instance, “supports further clinical research of medical use of cannabinoids” and specifically, “calls on federal officials to examine options to allow more clinical research.”

The Take Home

Marijuana is an increasingly popular medicinal choice for patients of all age groups, including senior citizens. While research is scarce, many medical professionals see it as a promising alternative to common remedies. Consult your doctor if you are interested in trying cannabis and live in an area where possession and use are legal.

Sean Marsala is a health writer based out of Philadelphia, PA. Passionate about technology, you can usually find him reading, browsing the internet, and exploring virtual worlds.