Pubdate: Mon, 22 Feb 2010
Source: Summit Daily News (CO)
Copyright: 2010 Summit Daily News
Author: Matt Sedensky, Associated Press Writer
Bookmark: (Cannabis - Medicinal)
Bookmark: (Chronic Pain)
Bookmark: (Decrim/Legalization)


MIAMI (AP) - 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.

Long a fixture among young people, use of the country's most popular
illicit drug is now growing among the AARP set, as the massive
generation of baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s and '70s grows

The number of people aged 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 55- to 59-year-olds, 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 as a way to cope with the aches
and pains of aging.

Siegel walks with a cane and has arthritis in her back and legs. She
finds 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

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, 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."

Each night, 66-year-old Stroup says he sits down to the evening news,
pours himself a glass of wine and rolls a joint. He's used the drug
since he was a freshman at Georgetown, but many older adults are
revisiting marijuana after years away.

"The kids are grown, they're out of school, you've got time on your
hands and frankly it's a time when you can really enjoy marijuana,"
Stroup said. "Food tastes better, music sounds better, sex is more

The drug 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, 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

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

Pete Delany, director of applied studies at the Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration, said boomers' drug use defied
stereotypes, but is important to address.

"When you think about people who are 50 and older you don't generally
think of them as using illicit drugs - the occasional Hunter Thompson
or the kind of hippie dippie guy that gets a lot of press maybe," he
said. "As a nation, it's important to us to say, 'It's not just young
people using drugs it's older people using drugs.'"

In conversations, older marijuana users often say they smoke in less
social settings than when they were younger, frequently preferring to
enjoy the drug privately. They say the quality (and price) of the drug
has increased substantially since their youth and they aren't as
paranoid about using it.

Dennis Day, a 61-year-old attorney in Columbus, Ohio, said 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

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

Siegel bucks the trend as someone who 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."

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