Marijuana use among American senior citizens increased 75% between 2015 and 2018, according to research published by New York University this week.

The researchers analyzed data collected from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health during that three-year period. They found that 2.4% of Americans aged 65 and over reported using marijuana in 2015, and that shot up to 4.2% in 2018.

The study used answers from more than 14,000 Americans. The authors attributed the increase to medical and recreational cannabis legalization, and the generally erosion of the stigma previously attached to marijuana use.

“Certainly the passing of medical marijuana laws in many states for a variety of qualifying conditions and diseases has played a role, and gotten the attention of older adults who are living with chronic diseases or symptoms that are difficult to treat,” said lead author Dr. Benjamin Han, assistant professor of geriatric medicine and palliative care at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.

Just 0.4% of Americans aged 65 and older reported using marijuana in 2006. That increased to 4.2% by 2018, and has probably continued to rise since then.

Medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states and adult-use cannabis is permitted in 11, plus the District of Columbia. Decriminalization is also taking place across the country.

Han believes the baby boomer generation – now entering their 60s and 70s – has more experience with marijuana and is more open to cannabis use. It is now easier for them to access it, causing a spike in usage rates.

Han is an active geriatrician. He said he was rarely asked about cannabis a decade ago, but he now regularly fields questions about its potential benefits.

Yet he is concerned that some older Americans may be using it to treat diseases for which marijuana is rarely considered, like diabetes. He also worries that they might grow dizzy or fall if they mix it with alcohol.

Previous studies have suggested that senior citizens use marijuana for pain management, and to treat anxiety or depression. Some said they prefer it to alcohol, while others favour it to opioid use. Many said they choose to pay extra for adult-use cannabis to avoid an awkward conversation with their doctors.

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