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Can you believe I was invited to a pot party at 72?

Today I experienced a first. I was invited to a pot party. Not just any party, a high school reunion party. It started out harmless. One kind fellow from my high school offered his beautiful home to host a Southern California reunion for us Pittsburghers. Then the invitation came out. It was a typical BYOB party except the host graciously offered to supply the pot! And then I knew what I already knew: I am an outlier, a Woodstock failure, and definitely not a pot smoker now or ever.

I called the host and explained to him that I’m a professional clinician and interventionist and have committed my life’s work to helping families and loved ones find recovery and sobriety from the gnawing hands of addiction. I offered him a few research articles and some of my own writing and he graciously retracted his offer on the grounds that a “highly principled classmate objected.” Yikes! I love being highly principled! I wondered if I might wear a Scarlet S of sobriety to the party having already been branded an outcast.

But then I got to thinking about my generation who burned their bras, went to Woodstock, wore flowers in their hair, dropped acid and tuned in and tuned out and wondered how they are responding to the legalization of marijuana.

Truth is my generation, Baby Boomers, are the fastest growing segment of marijuana users. There are a number of reasons that may explain why Boomers are rediscovering pot. As adults reach retirement, they age out of drug tests and have far more free time. Others may feel liberated as they ease into their twilight years. Plus, elegant vape pens and other discreet products (you can even buy them at Barneys) make marijuana attractive. And medical conditions such as glaucoma, end stage cancer and anxiety have found use for the drug.

Attitudes have also shifted. “Legalization seems to make non-users seem a little less scared of it, and perhaps less judgmental,” says Jo, a 56-year-old cannabis user, interviewed for The Guardian in the article “The Mature Stoner: Why Are So Many Seniors Smoking Weed?” published in January 2019.

For someone like myself who has not seen weed since I was in my twenties just going to a weed store is dizzying. And yet places like MedMen, Leaf, etc. are so attractive they remind us of Apple stores or fine apparel shops. They are specifically marketing to seniors offering discounts and shuttle buses from senior centers to cater to older clientele.

“It appears oils, tributes and salves and sometimes old fashioned buds are increasingly popular in seniors’ homes.” (New York Times, Dec. 2018). “Doctors warn that popularity outstrips scientific evidence, which documents the rise in usage among seniors living in Laguna Woods, Ca.” In fact, people ages 50-74 are more likely to use marijuana than Gen Z and are also at high risk for other drug use, according to Drug and Alcohol Dependence, Vol 191, Oct 2018, pages 374-381.

In fact, seniors may be turning toward medical marijuana as their drug of choice for treating all kinds of ailments. According to a 2016 study in the Guardian, “states with legalized access to medical marijuana, those using Medicare part D – a benefit primarily for seniors – received fewer prescriptions for other drugs to treat depression, anxiety, pain, and other chronic issues.”

Currently, social and peer support for use outweighs medical research. For seniors like myself there is limited evidence. Some studies demonstrate that marijuana can help reduce neuropathic pain caused by diabetes, shingles or chemotherapy, according to the Journal of Pain, Vol 16, Issue 7, July 2915 (616-627). Like any drug it can have side effects – dizziness can lead to injurious falls and marijuana is also associated with motor vehicle accidents so Dr. Cassarat and Dr. Briscor, featured in the journal, advise their patients not to drive for 6-9 hours after use.

Despite the middling evidence in support of marijuana’s effects on users, there is growing evidence that it can do more harm than good. In Malcolm Gladwell’s sprawling investigation of cannabis, “Is Marijuana as Safe as We Think?” for the New Yorker, published in January of 2019, Gladwell looks at a report by the National Academy of Medicine which found insufficient evidence that marijuana is a healing agent for any number of ailments such as glaucoma, anxiety and depression, cancer and others.

The report urges pharmaceuticals to rigorously test the drug to arrive at proper dosage levels for users. Because as it stands, there are plentiful marijuana products (tinctures, oils, vapes and combustibles, foods, etc.), however, no one knows levels of consumption for the human body. “Because of recent developments in plant breeding and growing techniques, the typical concentration of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, has gone from the low single digits to more than twenty per cent—from a swig of near-beer to a tequila shot,” writes Gladwell.

Gladwell also explores, marijuana’s link to mental illness. “Cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of developing schizophrenia and other psychoses; the higher the use, the greater the risk,” according to the National Academy’s report on marijuana. Perhaps we let experience speak for itself. Erik Messamore, a psychiatrist who specializes in neuropharmacology and in the treatment of schizophrenia, was interviewed for the New Yorker article, in which he states “ [I’ve] begun to see a new kind of patient: older, and not from the marginalized communities that his patients usually come from. These are otherwise stable middle-class professionals.” And their primary drug of choice? Marijuana.

I believe as an educator, clinician, mental health, substance abuse and chronic pain interventionist, concerned mother, and grandparent and citizen of a certain age, the jury is out on dosage and the long-term effects of marijuana. We must safeguard families and communities with knowledge and education.

In the same manner that tobacco companies denied evidence of a link to cancer, we are seeing a similar conversation evolve with marijuana today with respect to physical and mental health and substance use disorder. Likewise, in the same way that tobacco target markets younger generations, we are seeing marijuana marketing to our youth with colorful packaging, sleek vape pens that take marijuana cartridges, jelly belly candies, cookies and treats, water, gummy bears, etc.

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, (Childhood and Society 1950 and again in 1987, The Life Cycle Completed ) wrote that in order to have basic trust in the world we need seniors around with what he dubbed as ego integrity to pass on wisdom to those who are younger.

As a grandparent, I am concerned that my counterparts are unconsciously sending the wrong message to their grandchildren. Just like I was taught by my mother and grandmother that smoking cigarettes was cool, so too I fear our young are being taught that smoking a “doobie,” vaping or eating edibles is just the new way of somatizing ourselves without fully exploring long term consequences.