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Seniors and Marijuana: A Hidden Epidemic?

Every day 10,000 Baby Boomers (those born between 1946-1964) turn 65 years old and this “Silver Tsunami” will continue for the next 15 years. Within this group of Boomers exits what the American Medical Association calls a “Hidden Epidemic” — 2.5 million American seniors who have substance use disorders. Alcohol abuse is the most common drug among all age groups but the use of medical or recreational marijuana is close behind. Substance misuse by seniors remains “underestimated, under-identified, underdiagnosed, and undertreated.”[i]

The number of older Americans using marijuana grew an astonishing 333% in 12 years

Increased Use of Marijuana by Seniors

After alcohol, marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the United States among all age groups. Irrespective of the fact that some states have decriminalized the drug, it is still illegal under Federal Law. Yet marijuana use continues to to grown in those “legalized” states and its use among seniors is increasing.

Approximately 1.3% of Americans 65 or older surveyed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2014, had used marijuana within the prior 30 days. In 2002, by comparison, only 0.3% of Americans 65 or older reported having used. The number of older Americans using marijuana grew an astonishing 333% in 12 years.[ii]

Unfortunately, there is very little research that targets the senior population and the effects of marijuana. According to a recent article on the subject, “…many critical public health policy questions cannot be answered largely because there is a pervasive lack of reliable and representative information being collected about cannabis and older persons.”[iii]

Problems for Senior Housing

Because many skilled nursing facilities have residents on Medicare, senior living providers are afraid a generous marijuana policy could affect their reimbursements from the Federal government or bring raids by the Drug Enforcement Administration. They are also worried about where and how the residents should ingest the marijuana as well as how it should be stored. Some avoid the issue altogether by banning all use and others have adopted written policies clarifying the rules around use. With more than half the states providing for medical marijuana and a growing number of recreational use states, this issue must be addressed head on.

Independent senior housing has its own set of issues. For instance, Rossmoor, one of the oldest senior communities in California has 7,000 residents, 900 of whom are members of the “Medical Marijuana Club” that meets every Tuesday. However, the city in which Rossmoor is located has an extremely strict no smoking policy that includes marijuana so, technically, if you live in Rossmoor (or any other multi-family housing units) and use marijuana it must be ingested by means other than rolling a joint or vaping. That leaves “a business licensed for on-site marijuana consumption” as the only place you may consume.

Local governments are allowed to completely ban the sale of marijuana and many have done so.

California’s New Recreational Use Law

On Jan. 1, 2018, California’s new recreational marijuana use law will go into effect. It allows anyone over 21 to grow up to six plants for personal use or to give away. It prohibits selling of any amount. It also allows for possession of up to 28.5 grams of marijuana (about 57 joints) and 8 grams of concentrated marijuana. Smoking is to remain illegal 1) while driving a vehicle, 2) anywhere smoking tobacco is, and 3) in all public places. Local governments are also allowed to completely ban the sale of marijuana from their jurisdictions and many have done so. Moreover, local jurisdictions are allowed by the measure to “reasonably regulate” the personal growth, possession, and use of marijuana plants allowed by the new law.

So in California in January, Granny can smoke marijuana in her own home if she has a single family dwelling. She can also grow 6 plants so long as they are not visible to anyone and are kept under lock and key. If she lives in a form of senior housing, then she is pretty much limited to smoking at a business licensed for that purpose unless there are other specific rules in place. It will be interesting to watch and see whether or not seniors’ use of marijuana increases in California and other recreational states. In any event, this demographic should not be overlooked.


[i] “Substance Use Among Older Adults,” SAMHSA/CSAT (TIP #26) (1998)

[ii] National Survey on Drug Use and Health (CDC, 2016)

[iii] Oxford University Press USA. “More older Americans using cannabis, underscoring need for research.” ScienceDaily, 11 January 2017.

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