In 2014, a nationally representative survey found that 5.1 percent of adults over 50 had used cannabis in the past month, and the rate of cannabis use among older adults is expected to rise. The majority of older cannabis users reported using it less than once every 10 days, but nearly a quarter report using cannabis at least three to four times per week.
Only 2 percent of older cannabis users reported receiving professional treatment for cannabis abuse at any point in their lifetime. The available evidence suggests that “Although there is reason to be concerned that increased cannabis use may contribute to increased rates of substance abuse or other undesirable outcomes such as overdoses and traffic accidents, the overwhelming majority of older adults do not experience negative outcomes.”
In terms of medical marijuana, data from states with legalized medical marijuana suggest that the number of older adult users has increased steadily for the past five years. In states where data was available, adults over 60 represented between 9.9 to 20.5 percent of all medical marijuana users. Pain treatment is the most common reason for their medical use.
The authors suggest two areas in which cannabis could be a public health solution. The first is the nation’s growing epidemic of opioid misuse and abuse, where cannabis could be a substitute for prescription opioids for pain relief. Data from Canada showed that up to 80 percent of medical users took cannabis as a substitute for another prescription medication. The likelihood of opioid-related deaths was 25 percent lower where medical marijuana is legal. The second area is using cannabis to address the undertreatment of pain symptoms that has been documented at the end of life, and provide another choice (with potentially fewer negative side effects) for older adults entering end-of-life care.
Kaskie B, Ayyagari P, Milavetz G, Shane D, et al. The increasing use of cannabis among older Americans: a public health crisis or viable policy alternative? The Gerontologist. (2017). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnw166