Aging Baby Boomers Take Pot Mainstream

The fastest growing user group for a substance that's illegal in some places and an investment in others is older adults.

An older woman relaxing while smoking marijuana.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Nearly 90 years after the anti-drug propaganda film Reefer Madness peddled unintentionally hilarious warnings about the perils of pot, marijuana is becoming accepted and legal across the U.S. and increasingly popular among older adults. 

When today’s retirees were teens, their elders didn’t approve of pot. Now, however, it’s the oldsters themselves whose physicians prescribe weed to treat chronic pain, to ease the side effects of cancer chemotherapy, even to deal with Alzheimer’s symptoms. 

More than two-thirds of Americans support legalizing marijuana, according to Gallup, and 21 states, along with the District of Columbia, have legalized recreational use. 

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A lot about marijuana has changed in the last 50 years, culturally, legally, chemically, technologically and financially. Where folks used to have a couple of well-hidden plants growing in the backyard, there’s now a multi-billion-dollar agricultural industry. And the old $25 one-ounce plastic bag “lid” is now an exotic cannabis cultivar selling for more than $500 an ounce. 

Here’s what you need to know: 

1. Older adults are the fastest-growing user group for cannabis 

Firm numbers are hard to come by, but about 12.8 million people age 50 and older reported using marijuana in the past year, according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, published by the Department of Health & Human Services. A 2018 survey reported in JAMA Internal Medicine (Journal of the American Medical Association) found a 75% jump in usage by seniors over a three-year period. 

2. Marijuana is a growing business 

Cannabiz Team Worldwide, which provides staffing for cannabis jobs and helps people find work in the industry, says that cannabis is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S., with 428,059 full-time jobs across the country. If you want to pursue employment in this ever-evolving market, research your state’s laws. 

There may be local networking events where people interested in the industry can connect. New York City, for example, is hosting the three-day Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition, a trade show,  in June. 

3. You can invest in it

The cannabis industry is relatively healthy, despite lackluster investment returns over the past five years. MJBizDaily, a business news source for the cannabis industry, estimates cannabis sales in 2022 at $38.8 billion, a 43.7% increase over 2021. The economic impact is expected to increase even more, to $53 billion by 2026. 

You can even buy stocks of companies in the industry — including blue-chip names such as Altria and Scotts Miracle-Gro. regularly publishes a “This Week in Cannabis Investing” feature.

4. Pot appears to help with some medical conditions 

Retirees suffering from numerous ailments are looking for ways to mitigate pain. A study published by Science Daily, a research news site, says older adults reported less chronic pain when using marijuana and less need for opioid painkillers. Most older people are more interested in CBD (cannabidiol) used for pain relief and seizure reduction than in THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the ingredient that actually gets someone high, according to a study published in 2022 in Psychopharmacology

More research is needed on whether cannabis is the best alternative to prescription drugs, says Benjamin Han, a geriatrician at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. “I have had older patients tell me that they find cannabis useful for symptoms related to neuropathy and neuropathic pain as well as symptoms related to post-traumatic stress,” he says.

5. This ain’t your ’70s reefer 

Cannabis is much more potent than it used to be. Modern marijuana has three times as much THC as it did 25 years ago, according to a study published by the National Library of Medicine. The introduction of hydroponic farms in the 1980s and 1990s allowed growers to produce stronger, more potent products, which led to higher levels of THC. 

Medical marijuana users can select from a variety of high-potency strains with various concentrations of terpene, essential plant oils for aroma, and cannabinoids, the chemicals that can treat pain. Recreational users have a veritable candy store assortment of THC-infused products. The merchandise for sale at San Francisco’s upscale Apothecarium dispensary range from fruit-flavored edibles with names like “Camino Sours Sleep Blackberry Dream Gummies” to THC cartridges for vaping to packs of pre-rolled reefers.  

While 21 states have made marijuana possession fully legal, the devil is in the details. Wide-open California is okay with you holding one ounce or having six plants in your backyard, while Michigan’s limits are 2.5 ounces and 12 plants. Pot is decriminalized in Atlanta, but possession of an ounce elsewhere in Georgia could land you up to 12 months in jail. Montana is pretty much anything goes, but neighboring Idaho can throw the book at you — up to five years in jail — if you’re holding more than three ounces. 

Meanwhile, the feds are on the fence. Marijuana is still a controlled substance, just like cocaine or heroin, but the government won’t prosecute people for possessing small amounts. And in October, President Biden pardoned federal convictions for simple marijuana possession offenses. 

7. Employers have their own rules 

Even if marijuana is legal in your state, your boss may have another idea. You may never have had to undergo a pre-employment drug test, but if you are going back into the job market today you should know that many employers screen for marijuana and other drugs. But change is coming. More employers are treating marijuana use much like alcohol use, and some states are limiting pre-employment marijuana testing. 

That said, workplace safety remains a high priority — especially if the job involves vehicles or heavy machinery. Not surprisingly, airline pilots and school bus drivers are tested for pot use. Potential Walmart employees “may be drug screened as part of the post-offer hiring process or prior to accepting certain positions,” and otherwise marijuana-friendly Amazon maintains a “zero tolerance for impairment while working.” 

8. There are risks that come with that high 

A UC San Diego study found a 1,808% increase in cannabis-related trips to emergency rooms between 2005 and 2019. The study noted that older adults — already at a higher risk of having adverse health effects from all psychoactive substances — are especially vulnerable. 

Cannabis can slow reaction time and impair attention, so its use can lead to more falls. It can also increase the risk of delirium and paranoia, exacerbate cardiovascular and pulmonary disease and may interact with prescription drugs. A French study found that drivers under the influence of marijuana were 1.65 times more likely to cause fatal crashes. 

9. You can become a pot addict 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says people can and do become addicted to marijuana, due to its much higher potency today. People who seek treatment for marijuana use disorder typically use it every day and have done so for 10 or more years. Treating it with medications and behavioral therapies may help reduce marijuana use. Marijuana Anonymous is a 12-step program for pot addicts.

10. But friends can still get together 

One thing that hasn’t changed is marijuana’s attraction as a social drug. For older adults, this means clubs are forming in senior living facilities across the country, reports CNBS, an online cannabis guide. The Rossmoor Medical Marijuana Education and Support Club in Walnut Creek, Calif., for example, has more than 1,000 participants. 

Big cities sport dozens of cannabis-focused social clubs and networking groups. There are “Puff, Pass n Paint'' cannabis-themed art classes in at least eight cities. And Denver hosts the International Church of Cannabis. Of course, who needs an organized group? For those who partake, good friends, music and pot go together like, well, Lennon and McCartney. 

Note: This item first appeared in Kiplinger’s Retirement Report, our popular monthly periodical that covers key concerns of affluent older Americans who are retired or preparing for retirement. Subscribe for retirement advice that’s right on the money.

Yvette C. Hammett is a lifelong journalist whose career has focused on environmental issues, growth and development, economic development and the everyday lives of people. Hammett worked as a staff reporter for the Tampa Tribune from 2001 through 2016 and has written for numerous publications covering B2B marketing, growth in Central Florida, culture and business in the Tampa Bay area, national environmental issues for Natural Awakenings magazine and

legal news making headlines across the country, writing for The Legal Examiner.