Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.


The sweet scent of grandma’s baking cookies wafting in the air may be mixed with a more pungent aroma these days. Seniors, particularly those who have not found adequate relief from pain and other symptoms using traditional medicines, are beginning to wonder about, and turn to, other pain relief options—including medical cannabis. The proportion of folks 65 and older who use pot stands at 4.2 percent, up from 2.4 percent in 2015, according to figures from the U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That’s a 75 percent increase, and it could be more.

Times are a-changing in the United States, and attitudes toward marijuana are changing considerably. As the perception of risk associated with its use decreases, some in the older adult population are either continuing to use, restarting marijuana use, or initiating marijuana use for the first time. Although men were more likely than women to report using cannabis, women had significantly higher increases from year to year. Use of the drug has increased in older adults in both the states where marijuana has been legalized for recreational use and in the states where it has not. Older users commonly used marijuana at least 100 days out of the year.

Many adults are challenged with chronic pain, and taking up smoking pot for its potential medical benefits after smoking it “back in the day” can also be a lot easier than experiencing the side effects of opioids or other prescription drugs. Non-Hispanic white people between the ages of 50 and 64 were more likely to be marijuana users, but African- American marijuana users were more likely to be 65 years old or above. The most significant use increases appeared among women, married individuals, those living with diabetes, college-educated individuals, individuals who belonged to a racial or ethnic minority, those with higher incomes, people receiving mental health treatment, as well as people who reported frequent use of alcohol.

With the older adult population in the U.S. increasing dramatically in the upcoming decades, older adults in the U.S. are in the unique position of having had more experience using cannabis than any previous generation. Some haven’t smoked weed in decades and may be surprised how potent it has become over the years. People who never thought they would use marijuana in a million years are eating a marijuana gummy every night to help them sleep.

Research out of the University of California-San Diego shows older adults are using cannabis to treat a host of common health conditions. “Pain, insomnia and anxiety were the most common reasons for cannabis use and, for the most part, patients reported that cannabis was helping to address these issues, especially with insomnia and pain,” Christopher Kaufmann, co-first author of the study and assistant professor in the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology in the Department of Medicine at UC San Diego, said in a press release. Researchers also found that 61 percent of the patients didn’t start using cannabis until after age 60.

There are currently 28 qualifying conditions for the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program, including: Alzheimer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), autism spectrum disorder, cancer, Crohn’s disease, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord, epilepsy, glaucoma, hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, hospice care, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, opioid use disorder, peripheral neuropathy, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe chronic pain and ulcerative colitis

For older adults considering medical cannabis use, there is the dilemma of how to talk to their physician about it. They may feel awkward bringing up the topic. Self-education is the first step to speaking confidently when discussing alternatives with a doctor, including trying medical cannabis (also commonly referred to as medical marijuana) as part of your treatment strategy. With the increase in use, it is important to incorporate evidence-backed information about cannabis use into medical school. The clinical workforce needs to become aware of cannabis use by seniors and to gain awareness of both the benefits and risks of cannabis use in their patient population.

There is nothing wrong or illegal about discussing medical cannabis with your doctor. Federal courts have ruled that the First Amendment protects doctors in discussing medical cannabis and recommending it to their patients. It is important to do your research on cannabinoids, terpenes and the endocannabinoid system itself, to be as informed as possible from all angles. This will help you understand your doctor’s response and approach. It will also give you a leg to stand on if your doctor questions your decisions. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.

There are currently 34 states that have approved medical cannabis and/or recreational marijuana, with seven more having legalization on their 2021 agendas—including New Mexico. The huge spike in the number of seniors smoking pot and taking cannabis edibles is definitely related to the passing of medical marijuana laws around the U.S. This has gotten the attention of older adults who are living with chronic diseases or symptoms that are difficult to treat. If this current trend continues, don’t be surprised if the next time you visit grandma, she’s making marijuana brownies for grandpa.