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For the legal cannabis trade, some new wrinkles: Older users

For the legal cannabis trade, some new wrinkles: Older users
Kerry Durrell, 61, inspects marijuana held by "budtender" Pierce Hunter at Urbn Leaf in San Diego. (Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Even before California legalized recreational marijuana Jan. 1, pot was enjoying a gray renaissance.

From 2006 to 2013, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported a 250% rise in marijuana use by Americans 65 and older. It is still a small share, climbing from 0.4% to 1.4% of that population, but local dispensaries see plenty of silver-haired shoppers.

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"This is probably the most interested — and wariest — group," said Lincoln Fish, chief executive of cannabis company Outco, noting that the average customer at his Outliers Collective in El Cajon is over 58 years old.

Older consumers add a new wrinkle to the legal cannabis trade. Retirees tend to be less interested in getting high and more interested in getting relief from pain, anxiety and insomnia. Many are skittish about being identified as a user. (Many seniors interviewed for this story declined to be photographed or give their full names.)

"There's a stigma around marijuana use," said Michelle Sexton, a naturopathic practitioner assisting in a medical cannabis study at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. "It's got this whole negative connotation. They think they'll be viewed as druggies or hippies."

Moreover, a fog of mystery clouds this topic. More research is needed into cannabinoids, marijuana's active chemical compounds, said Dr. Mark Wallace, chair of the Division of Pain Medicine at UC San Diego Health. Effects vary depending on strains, delivery methods — whether it's smoked, consumed in brownies and gummies, or administered in tinctures — and the user's age.

Wallace has no qualms about recommending medical cannabis to his patients. "I'm completely comfortable that it is safe," he said.

Yet he notes that buying products from a dispensary is a crapshoot. The clerks or "budtenders" are not medical professionals, and seniors often buy products that are too strong or ineffective.

Still, older users — like their younger counterparts — are not exclusively focused on therapy. Some just want to recapture the sweet buzz of youth.

"I smoke every night," said Terri Graham, 61, a visitor from Wisconsin who had stopped to admire the Cannabus, a black bus with tinted windows that runs from Ocean Beach to a dispensary in Bay Park. "Why not?"

On a recent morning, half the customers inside Torrey Holistics were in their 60s and 70s. Some attended a free Cannabis 101 class on how marijuana products can combat insomnia. Others hoped to ease nagging aches and pains.

That search can be complicated and frustrating. Beth, a 73-year-old Carlsbad resident, originally bought a vape pen to treat her spondylitis, a form of arthritis that targets the spine.

"It was too strong for me," she said. "I don't want to get high, I just want to be able to get out of pain."

This was her second trip to Torrey Holistics, and this time she was considering its edible offerings. "If this doesn't work," she said, "I am through."

Bill, 71, hadn't bought or used weed for 50 years. That streak ended on this morning, when he purchased cannabis-infused soda, brownies and gummies. He hoped they would reduce the inflammation around his eyelids, a condition known as blepharitis.

Making his dispensary debut, he looked as jittery as a teen buying condoms. But the green buds and sweet fragrance stirred old memories.

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"It was hard to go through college in the '60s without using marijuana," he said with a laugh.

That's no exaggeration. In the 1960s and '70s, Gallup surveyed college students about marijuana usage. Between 1967 and 1971, the number of undergraduates who admitted trying the then-illegal substance zoomed from 5% to 51%.

For some, this kindled a lifelong passion.

Walking into Urbn Leaf wearing a faded T-shirt with psychedelic "Yellow Submarine" images, Kerry Durrell looked like "aging hippie" straight out of central casting. Now 61, she's been smoking pot off and on — "I've gone through phases" — since 1969.

"It helps me sleep," she said, inspecting buds at Urbn Leaf. "And it's recreational."

For some veteran users, the advent of legal marijuana is like an endless Christmas. Joe, 60, said he's been smoking weed since his teens. This week, the semi-retired truck driver from Encinitas was thrilled by his first visit to Torrey Holistics.

"Like a kid in a candy shop," he said. "I just love it."

Lee, a 70-year-old real estate agent, was equally enthusiastic. Although he grows marijuana at home, he happily bought a pocket-sized pack of edibles for $18.

"The thing I like about buying it here," he said, "you know what you are getting. When you grow it, sometimes you don't get high and sometimes you get too high. Here, the quality and consistency seem better."

Lee's peers, though, generally frown upon marijuana. In 2010, the Pew Research Center found that only 22% of Americans 65 and older favored legalization of marijuana. That number had grown to 30% by 2017, but it's still a minority of seniors.

Among those who disapprove: Bill's wife. Though eager to treat his blepharitis with cannabis-laced soda, Bill doesn't expect his spouse to take a sip.

"My wife is too conservative," he said. "I don't think she'd indulge."

When properly dosed, UC San Diego's Wallace said, cannabis is often a better choice than more traditional painkillers. "I see medical cannabis as a more conservative treatment than opioids," he said.

He starts clients on "microdoses," then adjusts the amount. This is a gradual process, he said, because it is easy to over- and under-prescribe THC, a mood-enhancing and painkilling compound in marijuana.

"As THC levels go up, the pain will reduce," he said, "until you get too much THC and then the pain will increase."

Studies indicate that cannabis' pain-relieving properties are best with a mild 3.4% THC content, Sexton said, but commercial products are often stronger.

"My patients can't tolerate 10 milligrams and they don't need it," she said. "The doctors aren't driving this change or deciding what's available for patients. It's the people making the products."

Cannabis isn't for everyone, which is true for former users as well as marijuana virgins. Researchers have found one's tolerance for weed changes with age.

Rowe writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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