July 14, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
“More than a third of people 65 or older report having tried marijuana, a proportion that has tripled since 2009. That trend has not gone unnoticed by reader Elizabeth Albright of Fountain, N.C., who asks about gray-haired customers of legal marijuana dispensaries.
Specifically, Elizabeth wants to know if they are unusually likely to be NPR listeners.
What a hilariously compelling question! It may not be so relevant in Fountain, a town of about 400 people that appears to consist primarily of an immense granite quarry located in one of the few states where even medical marijuana has yet to gain a legal toehold.
But in places where such recreation is legal, we reckon this could be a common stereotype. After all, while older Americans aren’t the biggest marijuana-using demographic in the country, use in that age group is growing like, well, a weed.
Almost every age group is becoming better acquainted with cannabis, but the increase hits differently at the older end of the spectrum. Marijuana use was almost nonexistent among that crowd a decade ago, when just 1 percent of folks over age 65 reported having smoked or otherwise consumed marijuana in the past month. That has now quintupled to 5 percent.
These figures all hail from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a five-decade effort by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that annually surveys about 70,000 Americans about mental health and alcohol, tobacco, drug use and recovery. The survey is how we know that more than half (52.5 percent) of all Americans age 18 and older have tried an illicit drug, including 49.1 percent who have tried marijuana, 16.1 percent who have tried cocaine and 11.5 percent who have tried LSD.
Marijuana use jumped among retirement-age Americans just as baby boomers entered their golden years. Boomers have as much experience with marijuana as almost anyone else. In 1984, when the youngest boomers were 20, about 30 percent of young men (ages 18-29) reported using marijuana in the previous year. That number fell in subsequent generations, but by 2015 it was back up to around 30 percent and by 2020 it had hit 33 percent.
Over the same time, use among older men leaped from 0.8 percent to 9.4 percent, while in older women it accelerated from zero percent to 3.9 percent, according to an unlikely source, the National Alcohol Survey conducted by Alcohol Research Group at the Public Health Institute, an independent government-funded organization in Berkeley, Calif. Its survey has long tracked weed habits, in part to better understand how they influence alcohol use.
Researchers attribute the sudden sea change to the generational gulf between the staid Silent Generation and the society-upending, experimentation-happy boomers. For context, boomers were somewhere between the ages of 14 and 32 when beloved stoners Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong released their first movie, “Up in Smoke,” in 1978.
“The Silent Generation doesn’t seem to have participated in cannabis use,” said William Kerr, who helps run the National Alcohol Survey and directs research at the center. “They rarely used it when they were young … and are unlikely to start when they get older. They also tend to have more negative opinions about marijuana and they’re less likely to support legalization.”
That reluctance actually made it tough to predict the current elderly embrace of cannabis, since — until boomers hit retirement age — researchers had so little data on the habits of older American marijuana users. Aging boomers changed everything, especially when legalization threw open the gates of weed world.
And legalization appears to have been a major factor fueling use among the elderly: Folks over 65 saw the largest increase in those who viewed marijuana as more easily available after their state passed medical marijuana laws, according to a 2016 analysis. Younger residents, by contrast, reported little change in availability, presumably because they have more active social networks and better connections to the black market. Older Americans also had the strongest response to legalization, the analysis found: Their likelihood of using marijuana more than doubled after states legalized medical use.(Research hints that some of the immediate increase may be due to people who are more willing to admit marijuana use after it’s legalized, but even taking that into account, use increases significantly.)
“I think that older people may be more concerned about the legal status of their activities and the risks of legal troubles than younger people,” said Columbia University epidemiologist Deborah Hasin, “so they may take the legal status of cannabis more seriously than younger individuals.”
Hasin, who has watched the cannabis landscape change as she published more than 500 papers on drug use and drug-related problems, said use among older smokers also may be fueled by ads promising a host of age-relevant benefits from legal weed.
“There’s been a lot of leeway … for the cannabis industry to market cannabis as being a great thing to use for sleep problems, for pain, for anxiety, for all these things,” she told us. “This could affect the older group, who are affected more by some of these medical issues than younger people.”
And maybe they’re onto something. Legalization of recreational marijuana in a state led to a significant decline in workers’ compensation payments among older workers (ages 40 to 62), according to a recent analysis in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Perhaps, the authors say, that decline has something to do with increased access to “a non-pharmaceutical pain management option.”
To be sure, as Hasin gently but firmly reminded us, marijuana has many negative consequences, including sedation, confusion and cannabis use disorder, otherwise known as addiction. At least 1 in 5 people who use marijuana develop the disorder, according to a large-scale 2020 research review. Hasin called it “a real and serious clinical condition” that looks similar to addiction disorders associated with other drugs, “including withdrawal and cravings and interference with people’s activities.”
As legalization has led folks to use marijuana more regularly, emergency-room trips for cannabis-related psychological distress are on the rise, as are visits for vomiting and accidental poisonings in children, according to a 2020 research review.
“At present, few state-specific effects have been found after the enactment of medical or recreational cannabis laws other than increases in adult cannabis use disorder,” Hasin said. “However, in the rapidly changing U.S. cannabis landscape, continued careful surveillance is needed.”
So older adults are rapidly becoming more likely to use marijuana. And it seems probable that they’re overrepresented at dispensaries, relative to their younger peers, given their strong positive response to legalization. But Elizabeth’s question remains: Are they unusually likely to be NPR listeners?
Unfortunately, “NPR listener” has yet to be adopted as a demographic category by our favorite data sources. And we say they’re the poorer for it! So we’ll have to try a little data triangulation.
One thing we can measure about NPR fans is their politics. In 2021, 49 percent of NPR listeners were Democrats, according to our friends at Pew Research, while just 10 percent were Republicans. The public radio titan now attracts one of the most left-leaning audiences in media, behind only Vox and well ahead of The Washington Post and the New York Times.
While we don’t have marijuana use by age and political party, Pew does measure support for marijuana legalization by age. Retirement-age Americans have, by far, the biggest partisan gap in support for legalization, with older Democrats supporting it at twice the rate of their GOP friends (65 percent vs. 31 percent).
So it seems entirely plausible that public radio die-hards are overrepresented among the grayheads in the line at the local weed dispensary!
The weed capital of America
Elizabeth didn’t ask for it, but it feels deeply wrong not to offer data on the states with the most marijuana use.
If it were a state, D.C. would top the rankings in most years — about a third of District adults got high in the past year, as of 2021.
Vermont, Oregon and Alaska also rise to the top, while Utah, Texas and Mississippi settle to the bottom. In general, the best predictor of weed use seems to be politics, rather than demographics, with left-leaning jurisdictions being more likely to use (and legalize) cannabis.
Who’s most likely to use marijuana
Speaking of demographics, the likelihood of using marijuana actually seems to rise with education, which we suppose may not be surprising to folks who have spent quality time on a college campus. White and Native Americans are more likely to have tried marijuana in their lifetimes than their Hispanic and Asian friends. Black Americans fall somewhere in the middle, depending on the time frame.“