Like many recent studies examining the effects of marijuana laws, this one compared what happened in medical marijuana states before and after the passage of medical pot provisions, and compared them to trajectories in similar states that did not implement medical marijuana. The data come from the Health and Retirement study, a long-running survey of the health and economic well-being of older American adults.
The study found that, among individuals age 50 and older, “passage of [a medical marijuana law] leads to a 9.4 percent increase in the probability of employment and a 4.6 percent to 4.9 percent increase in hours worked per week.”
Why the boost to employment? Simply put, overall health appeared to be better in states with medical marijuana laws. In those states, older men were 5 percent more likely to say they were in “very good” or “excellent” health. And part of the reason men rated their health better is because they were in less pain: the passage of a medical marijuana law led to roughly a 10 percent drop in the percent of men saying they experienced pain.
The health effect on women, however, appeared to be more mixed. “Surprisingly, among women we find evidence that passage of [a medical marijuana law] that provides legal access to the product increases the probability of reporting pain in the full sample by 1.3 percentage points (3.8 percent)." Nonetheless, the study found that like men, older women were about 5 percent more likely to report “very good” or “excellent” health after the passage of medical marijuana.
While the difference between men and women is puzzling, a recent Columbia University study offers a clue: Smoking marijuana provides more pain relief for men than for women, for reasons not yet fully understood.
Much of the debate around marijuana legalization centers on the potential effects on young people. This makes a certain amount of sense, as young, still-developing brains are at the highest risk for adverse effects from the use of any drug. But a surprising amount of new research suggests that older Americans will be much more affected by changes to marijuana law than previously thought.
Middle-aged Americans are now more likely to use marijuana than their teenage children, and the fastest increases in marijuana use are being seen among Americans age 55 and up.
The research is also starting to suggest that older marijuana users may benefit from better quality of life in their golden years. A study earlier this year found that Medicare prescriptions for a variety of drugs, including painkillers, anti-anxiety medications and anti-nausea drugs, fell significantly in states that adopted medical marijuana laws.
Research has also shown that for older people medical marijuana laws appear to be linked to increased exercise and overall wellness, simply because when you hurt less, you feel better and exercise more.
As with any drug — recreational or medical — there are risks associated with marijuana use. Driving while under the influence of marijuana is particularly dangerous, and marijuana use does carry a risk of dependency.
But researchers generally agree that, overall, there are fewer risks associated with marijuana use than there are with alcohol. And as the latest working paper shows, there are benefits to more widespread availability of medical marijuana that could result in a significant improvement in quality of life, particularly for older Americans.