Susan Newman is the future of the cannabis industry.
Newman, 65, is part of a population of Americans ages 55 and older that comprises the largest growth segment for marijuana businesses.
There’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence and hard data to back that.
“I see more people at the cannabis shops my age than ever,” said Newman, a retiree who spends part of the year residing in Washington, where the state allows adult recreational cannabis use.
May is being celebrated by the Administration on Aging, part of the Administration for Community Living, as Older Americans Month. The 2018 theme, Engage at Every Age, emphasizes that people are never too old to take part in activities to enrich their physical, mental and emotional well-being.
Newman, like many in her generation, uses marijuana for all of the above.
She has another residence in Maui, where she and her 71-year-old husband, Carl, spend their days golfing, playing mah-jongg, entertaining and walking around a lot.
“It helps with my pain,” Newman said of her cannabis use. “I am kind of in pain 90 percent of the time.”
Newman, who typically vapes cannabis and sometimes takes it in pill form, uses marijuana to relieve pain from arthritis in her hands, neck, and back, as well as a degenerative disc disease. She said it also helps keep her active.
She does Pilates twice a week, takes extensive walks at least three times a week, and swims about twice a week.
Older Americans seek wellness benefits of cannabis
All of this is possible, she said, because cannabis dulls the pain, and improves her mind-set by keeping her from dwelling on the discomfort.
“It helps me get my mind off of it,” she said.
It’s these type of health and wellness benefits that are driving older Americans to use cannabis, according to Linda Gilbert, managing director of consumer insight for BDS Analytics.
“What we’re seeing in the data is that older adults are being faced with a lot of decisions regarding the use of OTC and pharmacy type products that have very concerning side effects,” Gilbert said.
Many older people face anxiety, chronic pain, diabetes, loss of appetite – all medical problems with symptoms that have been known to be relieved through cannabis consumption – and they are hearing about the benefits of marijuana from other seniors, relatives, and in the media, Gilbert added.
Of further interest to this group is reducing the inconvenient — and sometimes scary — side effects that come with other pain medications, such as losing one’s balance and falling, or constipation.
“We see a high degree of receptivity because they don’t want to take Ambien and oxycontin and all of the traditional things that have been prescribed,” Gilbert said.
Seniors remain a fast-growing consumer demographic
According to the 2018 BDS Analytics trend study, Public Attitudes and Actions Toward Cannabis in the US, 12 percent of adults ages 50 and older living in states where medical or recreational cannabis use is legal say they have used cannabis in some form in the past six months.
The study shows that 19 percent said their reasons for cannabis use is to relieve pain, while 16 percent said they use marijuana to relax.
This age group is also a big consumer of Edibles, Gilbert has found in her research.
The reason for this is simple. Many older people are coming into cannabis use for better health and wellness, so using an inhalable isn’t really seen as being aligned to that goal.
“They tend to be more oriented to edibles and topicals,” Gilbert said. “They’re not looking to get high, they’re looking to relieve pain, deal with anxiety and sleep better.”
An American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse study released last year, “Older adults’ marijuana use, injuries, and emergency department visits,” shows how much marijuana use overall is being bolstered by older adults.
The study is a compilation of myriad scientific and academic studies, as well as polling. It cites a Gallup poll that shows that 29 percent of respondents ages 55 and older supported legalizing cannabis in 2003 and 2005, but by 2016 the figure had risen to 45 percent.
Baby boomers are changing the tide
The study also shows that baby boomers are among the biggest reasons for the increasing cannabis use rate among older adults. Aging baby boomers have had greater exposure to marijuana, and often sport more permissive attitudes toward recreational use than prior generations, according to the study.
Baby boomers who use cannabis claim they do so for symptom relief from things like chronic pain, anxiety, and other health or mental health conditions, as well as relaxation, stress reduction, social and recreational reasons, and enhancement or expansion, according to the study.
Newman fits the baby boomer mold well. She and Carl have been married 40 years. They have two children, ages 33 and 34, and retired about seven years ago. During her life, Newman was mostly a full-time mother, but found work off and on, including a stint as a fashion coordinator — a dream she gave up on when she had her children. Carl held down a suit-and-tie job in the insurance industry, writing surety bonds for contractors.
Newman, who said she prefers Sativa strains over Indica because Sativa doesn’t make her so sleepy, has been looking around Washington during the months she’s there for medical cannabis that’s lower in THC.
“I don’t want to smoke it too much,” she said. “I don’t want to be stoned all of the time.”
She grew up in Bellevue, Washington, near Seattle, raised by upper-class parents during the “sex, drugs and rock and roll” culture movement of the 1960s, and first smoked marijuana when she was roughly 15, “because it was the ’60s, and I wanted to know what it was like.”
She liked it, and has used marijuana off and on ever since.
Her parents didn’t like their daughter lighting up, and spent most of their lives not understanding Newman’s interest in it.
“They were not pleased at all,” she said. “They did not get it until my mother passed away last fall, until she realized ‘Oh, the stuff can help.’”
Her mother tried cannabis later in life, a few pills, Newman said, to help with the pain of pancreatic cancer. She was 91 when she died.
“She would have lived to 100 if that goddamned cancer hadn’t gotten to her,” Newman said.