Aging baby boomers may lead drive to legalize marijuana further

By Matt Sedensky
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

MIAMI -- In her 88 years, Florence Siegel has learned how to relax: A glass of red wine. A crisp copy of the New York Times, if she can wrest it from her husband. Some classical music, preferably Bach. And every night like clockwork, she lifts a pipe to her lips and smokes marijuana.

Long a fixture among young people, use of the country's most popular illicit drug is now growing among the AARP set, as the massive generation of baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s grows older.

The number of people age 50 and older reporting marijuana use in the prior year went up from 1.9 percent to 2.9 percent from 2002 to 2008, according to surveys from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The rise was most dramatic among 55- to 59-year-olds, whose reported marijuana use more than tripled, from 1.6 percent to 5.1 percent.

Observers expect further increases as 78 million boomers born between 1945 and 1964 age. For many boomers, the drug never held the stigma it did for previous generations, and they tried it decades ago. Some have used it ever since, while others are now revisiting the habit, either for recreation or as a way to cope with their aches and pains.

Siegel, who uses a cane and has arthritis in her back and legs, said marijuana has helped her sleep better than pills ever did.

Advocates for legalizing marijuana say the growing number of older users could represent an important shift in their decades-long push to change the laws.

"For the longest time, our political opponents were older Americans who were not familiar with marijuana and had lived through the 'Reefer Madness' mentality, and they considered marijuana a very dangerous drug," said Keith Stroup, the founder of NORML, a marijuana advocacy group. "Now, whether they resume the habit of smoking or whether they simply understand that it's no big deal and that it shouldn't be a crime, in large numbers they're on our side of the issue."

The drug is credited with relieving many problems of aging, from chronic aches to glaucoma and macular degeneration. Fourteen states have medical marijuana laws (the D.C. Council recently approved its own measure) that allow varying degrees of access, while residents of other states buy or grow the drug illegally to ease their conditions.

But there's also the risk that health problems already faced by older people -- problems such as heart disease and cognitive impairment -- can be exacerbated by regular marijuana use, smoking marijuana increases the risk of heart disease and can cause cognitive impairment, said William Dale, chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center. He said he'd caution against using it even if a patient cites benefits. "There are other, better ways to achieve the same effects," he said.

-- Associated Press

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