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A look at cannabis use among 60-somethings

Grandparents going green

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Scott started smoking weed after his wife got a medical marijuana card.

The 67-year-old local, who didn't want his last name used because he didn't initially obtain marijuana legally, says his wife acquired her card through a Colorado Springs doctor who was recommended by a local dispensary. She used it to buy creams and salves that helped with leg cramps and pain from a hip replacement.

"She had a very legitimate usage of her medical card and [the CBD cream] worked, and it was non-psychoactive, so she didn't feel any psychoactive effects from it," Scott says.

As a member of a local dispensary she also got "perks"— products that Scott started using. While he has embraced occasional use and has seen the relief his wife was able to find firsthand, he says that pot is still a taboo subject among many of his peers. "I don't have very many friends I do it with," he explains, "Some of them don't approve."

Scott avoids talking about pot with many of his friends, let alone enjoying it together. Broad negative messaging around all drugs, including cannabis, has lodged deep, making it hard for some older users to break the stigma.

"For years we have been bombarded with 'don't do drugs,' 'drugs are horrible,' 'drugs will wreck your life,'" Scott says. "For years, marijuana was counterculture. Some people that I hang out with are counterculture and some people are not."

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers traveled to Arizona in September to urge voters there not to legalize recreational marijuana.

In his speech, he told Arizonans — who later defeated a legalization measure — that there were dire consequences, including increased teen use. But recent studies released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which includes data from 2002 to 2014, show that the claim isn't true. It's the 55 and up crowd — people like Scott — who have been using cannabis products more as legalization has spread.

Compared with use in 2002, participants in the national CDC study aged 55 to 64 were 455 percent more likely to say they have used marijuana in the past month in 2014, while those aged 65 and up were 333 percent more likely to say the same. The nation's youth, ages 10 to 17, who seem to be the major focus of those opposed to legalization, have meanwhile seen a 10 percent decrease in usage between 2002 and 2014, the study found.

The CDC report isn't the only one showing an increase in elder pot use. It's supported by recent studies concerning Medicare Part D payouts, a benefit available to individuals over the age of 65 and eligible for Social Security. In a study titled, "Medical Marijuana Laws Reduce Prescription Medication Use in Medicare Part D," authors Ashley C. Bradford, a master's student at the University of Georgia, and W. David Bradford, an adjunct professor of economics at the University of Georgia, sorted national data. They write, "Using data on all prescriptions filled by Medicare Part D enrollees from 2010 to 2013, we found that the use of prescription drugs for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative fell significantly, once a medical marijuana law was implemented."

They conclude that medical marijuana availability is significantly affecting prescribing patterns and spending. "National overall reductions in Medicare program and enrollee spending when states implemented medical marijuana laws were estimated to be $165.2 million per year in 2013," they write.

The use of cannabis products among older generations includes creams and salves that help with pain, products that improve sleep and appetite, and others that just plain get you high. With the variety of extracts, medicated creams, tinctures and edibles, older users can find the product they need with or without a psychoactive side effect and often without the side effects experienced with traditional prescription medication.

However, studies have been few and far between when it comes to how, exactly, marijuana affects specific ailments. Research on the use of cannabis products by older patients has also been lacking. So when Scott wanted to know if cannabis would help with his back, he simply tried it.

"I was having some problems," he says. "I am self-employed and have an office in my house, so one afternoon I thought, 'I am going to take a little bit of this edible to see, first of all, if it helps my back, and second of all, if I can still work' ... It was no on both counts. It didn't help my back and I couldn't work."

New research grants are coming down the pike, one of them to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Dr. Sara Qualls, the director of the UCCS Gerontology Center, recently won a one-year state grant totaling $97,500, which she will use to study marijuana use and effects among older people. Studies like these could pave the way for an even greater shift in marijuana usage among older demographics, or at least start setting a foundation for further research.

For now, Scott, his wife, and others like him are embracing benefits and finding their own ways to enjoy pot. But there are still limitations.

"My favorite way to use marijuana is to be in the woods," says Scott, who mentions again that few of his friends approve. "I am happy to do it in the woods alone because I can be in my own moments of awe."

When asked if he's ever smoked with his kids, who also have smoked weed, he says, "[My son] is much more knowledgeable than I am ... but I am real self-conscious. That is my bias of raising a child with 'you are not supposed to be doing that,' and now I am doing it. Doing it together is a bit uncomfortable to me so it has been few times."

Scott turned 64 the January that Amendment 64 legalized recreational marijuana in Colorado. The week of his birthday, he and his wife drove to Denver to a recreational store, made a purchase and drove home to enjoy it.

"I am still astonished that marijuana is legal," he says, "that you can go to a store and buy it."

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