More elders smoke marijuana to ease pain, mellow out

MIAMI — In her 88 years, Florence Siegel has learned how to relax. A glass of red wine. A crisp copy of the New York Times, if she can wrest it from her husband. Some classical music, preferably Bach. And every night like clockwork, she lifts a pipe to her lips and smokes marijuana.

Use of the country's most popular illicit drug is growing among its eldest citizens, even more so as the massive generation of baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s grows older.

The number of people 50 and older reporting marijuana use in the prior year went up from 1.9 percent to 2.9 percent from 2002 to 2008, according to surveys from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The rise was most dramatic among those ages 55 to 59, whose reported marijuana use more than tripled, from 1.6 percent in 2002 to 5.1 percent.

Observers expect further increases as 78 million boomers born between 1945 and 1964 age. For many boomers, the drug never held the stigma it did for previous generations, and they tried it decades ago.

Some have used it ever since, while others are revisiting the habit in retirement, either for recreation or for coping with the aches and pains of aging.

Siegel walks with a cane and has arthritis in her back and legs. She finds that marijuana has helped her sleep better than pills ever did. And she can't figure out why everyone her age isn't sharing a joint, too.

"They're missing a lot of fun and a lot of relief," she said.

The times, they are a-mellowing

Politically, advocates for legalizing marijuana say the number of older users could represent an important shift in their decades-long push to change the laws.

"For the longest time, our political opponents were older Americans who were not familiar with marijuana and had lived through the 'Reefer Madness' mentality and they considered marijuana a very dangerous drug," said Keith Stroup, 66, the founder and lawyer of NORML, a marijuana advocacy group.

"Now, whether they resume the habit of smoking or whether they simply understand that it's no big deal and that it shouldn't be a crime, in large numbers they're on our side of the issue."

Ronnie Crider, a lawyer in the Tampa Bay area, says he's seeing more older marijuana users, estimating that they compose more than 10 percent of the defendants in his practice.

"The elderly folks, they're not going to clubs, they're not going out and putting themselves in positions where they are going to have contact with the police," Crider said. "Therefore, we don't really know the population that's using marijuana that's elderly, but I guarantee you it's much larger than people think."

An advocate for its benefit, and a caveat

Marijuana is credited with relieving many problems of aging: aches and pains, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and so on. Patients in 14 states enjoy medical marijuana laws (Florida is not among them), but those elsewhere buy or grow the drug illegally to ease their conditions.

Among them is Perry Parks, 67, of Rockingham, N.C., a retired Army pilot who suffered crippling pain from degenerative disc disease and arthritis. He had tried all sorts of drugs, from Vioxx to epidural steroids, but found little success. About two years ago he turned to marijuana, which he first had tried in college, and was amazed how well it worked for the pain.

"I realized I could get by without the narcotics," Parks said, referring to prescription painkillers. "I am essentially pain-free."

But there's also the risk that health problems already faced by older people can be exacerbated by regular marijuana use.

Older users could be at risk for falls if they become dizzy, smoking it increases the risk of heart disease, and it can cause cognitive impairment, said Dr. William Dale, chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

He said he'd caution against using it even if a patient cites benefits.

"There are other, better ways to achieve the same effects," he said.

A price to pay, legally and in real dollars

"Culturally the '60s generation, which was much more tolerant of marijuana use, is now moving into the older population," said Tampa Bay area criminal defense attorney John Trevena. "That new demographic is certainly going to be more supportive of medical marijuana use than prior generations."

But Florida law has a low tolerance for marijuana use, whether for recreation or medical purposes. And though reports suggest that marijuana is widely sold, it can be expensive, from about $100 per ounce on the street to about $400 for medical-grade marijuana.

Dennis Day, a 61-year-old lawyer in Columbus, Ohio, said that when he used to get high, he wore dark glasses to disguise his red eyes, feared talking to people on the street and worried about encountering police. With age, he says, any drawbacks to the drug have disappeared.

"My eyes no longer turn red. I no longer get the munchies," Day said. "The primary drawbacks to me now are legal."

Siegel was well into her 50s before she tried pot for the first time. She can muster only one frustration with the drug.

"I never learned how to roll a joint," she said. "It's just a big nuisance. It's much easier to fill a pipe."

Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report.

More elders smoke marijuana to ease pain, mellow out 03/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 5:30am]

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