Boomers see views relaxing on marijuana

Health, law enforcement officials bemoan greater public tolerance of drug

Joe Lee, 62, a regular pot smoker, runs a vintage-record shop in Rockville. He says he has noticed more public acceptance of the drug than when he used it while an art student in Baltimore in the 1960s.
Joe Lee, 62, a regular pot smoker, runs a vintage-record shop in Rockville. He says he has noticed more public acceptance of the drug than when he used it while an art student in Baltimore in the 1960s. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009

Smoking pot isn't what it used to be for Joe Lee, a 62-year-old vintage-record dealer in Rockville.

Back in the late 1960s, as an art student in Baltimore, he kept his landlord in a constant state of suspicion, with clouds of marijuana smoke poorly masked by clouds of incense.

These days, after four decades of regular use, cannabis is a smaller deal. Lee takes a few hits every other day or so, when he wants to listen to music or laugh with a few friends on the porch. And he's happy to talk about it.

"There's gotten to be greater tolerance, that's for sure," said Lee, the son of one-time acting Maryland governor Blair Lee III. "I know literally hundreds of people my age who smoke. They are upright citizens, good parents who are holding down jobs. You take two or three puffs, and you're good to go. I'm not a Rastafarian; I don't treat this as some holy sacrament. But pot is fun."

A federal survey of Americans' drug use shows that Lee and his friends are not the only baby boomers approaching the age of retirement much as they departed the Age of Aquarius -- with an occasional case of the munchies. The government's most recent survey showed that the share of marijuana users ages 50 to 59 increased from 5.1 percent in 2002 to almost 10 percent in 2007.

Some of those users are empty-nesters, returning to the drug decades after their pot habits gave way to raising children and building careers. Others, like Lee, have kept using pot all along, researchers said.

"We're concerned by the public health impact of this," said Peter Delany, who heads the office in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that conducts the survey. Marijuana could present special problems for older users, he said, including unknown interactions with prescription drugs. "Doctors need to be more sensitive to it," he said. "They may ask older patients about alcohol now but not think to ask about illicit drug use."

But some older marijuana users say they are living evidence that smoking pot does not preclude a normal life, and more older smokers seem more comfortable than at any point since their teen years with going public -- a tribute, they say, to a big boost in public tolerance of marijuana use.

Mainstreaming marijuana

In parts of California, licensed medical marijuana dispensaries have become as common as In-N-Out Burger stands. At least 13 other states allow some form of pot use for medicinal purposes, and the Obama administration announced last month that federal prosecutors would no longer go after medical users in those states, a policy shift that activists hailed as a watershed.

Last week, in a reversal, the American Medical Association called for a review of marijuana's status as a Schedule 1 hard drug alongside LSD and PCP and for more study of its medicinal potential.

In May, California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, said it was "time for a debate" on the merits of legalizing and taxing the drug. Nationally, support for legalization has jumped to its highest level in 40 years, up in a Gallup poll from 31 percent in 2000 to 44 percent last month.

In much of American pop culture, the taboo against smoking pot lies largely in ashes -- in ubiquitous references in hip-hop music and in TV programs such as Showtime's "Weeds." Even iconic potheads Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong are in vogue again, back on the road with their 22-city "Light Up America" comedy tour.

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