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Getting higher with age: Marijuana use rises dramatically among people over 55

Tamar Myers, 68, uses a vape pen to smoke marijuana in her Sun City home. Myers and her husband moved to Arizona a year ago so she could access medical marijuana to deal with a shoulder injury. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Tamar Myers, 68, uses a vape pen to smoke marijuana in her Sun City home. Myers and her husband moved to Arizona a year ago so she could access medical marijuana to deal with a shoulder injury. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

For decades, Tamar Myers wrote mystery novels with pun-heavy titles like “Gruel and Unusual Punishment” and “Custard’s Last Stand.” She has written 43 of them, she’ll tell you proudly.

Myers is now semi-retired, but she’s still working on a science fiction novel. This grandmother, clad in vibrant blues on a recent afternoon at her Sun City home, gushes about her cats and her travels.

And her marijuana.

She and her husband moved to Arizona from Charlotte, North Carolina, about a year ago for one specific purpose – medical marijuana.

Myers, at age 68, fits with national data, recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that shows people over age 55 make up the fastest-growing demographic of pot users.

Thirteen years ago, Myers injured her right shoulder – she said she’s not even sure how it happened, but it has undeniably changed her life. She can’t sleep on her back or lean back into a chair, and it feels “like a bad burn” if her shoulder is touched.

She was prescribed the painkiller tramadol, six per day, to fight the pain, and sometimes hydrocodone if the pain was bad enough. But even with the painkillers, she was still uncomfortable. She wanted to try weed, but she wanted to do it legally.

“I don’t look good in stripes,” she said.

Since she became a medical marijuana cardholder, she’s dropped from six pain pills per day to two. She’s now able to travel, muscling through long car trips across the desert using weed lozenges. She uses a vape pen, as well as a marijuana-infused salve that goes directly on her shoulder and some weed candies.

“It’s made a huge difference in my life, so it was worth the gamble selling our house and moving here,” Myers said.

The CDC looked at marijuana use in interviews from 2002 to 2014 across different age ranges. Across all ages, marijuana use increased 35 percent from 2002 to 2014. But for people from 55 to 64, usage increased 455 percent. For those 65 and over, usage increased 333 percent.

It’s still a minority of older adults who use marijuana – just 6.1 percent of those 55-64 in 2014 (up from 1.1 percent in 2002), and only 1.3 percent of those over age 65 (up from 0.3 percent in 2002).

During the same time period, youth usage dropped to 7.4 percent for those aged 12 to 17, from 8.4 percent in 2002. Adults aged 18-25 make up the largest bloc of marijuana users at 19.6 percent in 2014.

Much of the debate over Proposition 205, a measure on the ballot this year to legalize adult use of recreational marijuana, has focused on potential impacts on children. But if the measure passes, it’s likely adult usage, and thus that of the 55-plus crowd, will continue to rise.

Studies, including one by researchers at the University of Georgia that was published in Health Affairs, have also shown states that have medical marijuana programs are seeing falling numbers of prescription medications for Medicare Part D patients. That trend may continue in states that legalize marijuana fully.

J.P. Holyoak, a medical marijuana dispensary owner and the chairman of the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, said most patients tend to be older folks with chronic pain. He said the rise in the 55-plus crowd’s use of marijuana will absolutely continue to grow if legalization passes, since most of the growth now is coming from that population.

The most recent monthly report from the Arizona Medical Marijuana Program shows about 39,000 of the state’s nearly 100,000 cardholders, or 39 percent, are over age 51. Add in the age bracket from 41 to 50, and the proportion rises to 55 percent.

But the medical marijuana program, which requires a $150 annual payment to the state to get a card plus the cost of a doctor’s visit to qualify, can be a barrier to those on fixed incomes, Holyoak said.

“The group of people that are going to benefit the most from cannabis legalization will be the over-55 crowd,” Holyoak said.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, a vocal critic of the legalization effort, said he’s seen the statistics about increased usage by seniors, but the opposition is focusing more on long-term dangers to kids and the community.

“Those risks-slash-dangers to the community are different in degree and kind when you’re talking about those two different age populations,” Montgomery said.

He said the increased usage among seniors is likely caused by efforts from the medicinal marijuana industry to expand their customer base, which hints at what could happen to youth if marijuana is legalized for recreational use.

“In the current medicinal regime, the elderly who do use medicine at a greater rate than younger Americans are a lucrative market to increase customer use,” he said.

Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, which is opposed to legalization, says any increase in usage, regardless of age, isn’t good.

The group’s spokeswoman, Anne Dockendorf, said, “It’s bad news any time drug use is on the rise, no matter what demographic is using it more than another. … Increasing marijuana use on a massive scale inevitably is going to increase the impact of marijuana on children.”

If more adults use marijuana, something that’s hidden and done behind closed doors will be brought into the community more, exposing kids to it and making it more available and normal, she said.

Busted stereotypes

As more older adults start to use marijuana, stereotypes about who uses pot continue to be busted.

Take Kevin DeMenna, a 58-year-old conservative Mormon lobbyist at DeMenna and Associates (the lobbying business he shares with his two sons) with decades of experience at the Capitol. He never thought he’d be a medical marijuana cardholder. He especially never thought he’d be publicly talking about his pot use.

“Someone said I’m a ‘unicorn’ in this issue, and I like that. I go to work in a Brooks Brothers suit in a political environment,” DeMenna said.

In October 2014, DeMenna was arrested for driving under the influence and drug possession in Pinal County, and officers found marijuana and prescription pain medications in his car. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor DUI charge and spent two days in jail.

After his arrest, DeMenna said he quit prescription painkillers cold-turkey. Weaning off the meds left him with crippling nausea, which he used marijuana to counter. He also got a medical marijuana card and still uses pot to treat his pain, caused by rodeo injuries decades ago.

His DUI was also detailed in a front-page story in the state’s largest newspaper, The Arizona Republic, in August 2015, foisting him and his drug addiction into the spotlight.

The experience was monumental and fundamentally life-altering to his business and his family. DeMenna said his life has been divided into two meridians – before his arrest and after. And it has given him a lot of ideas of things that need fixing.

“If a pizza maker went to jail for the weekend, he would come out with a lot of opinions on the food. But a guy that does policy goes to jail for the weekend or goes through an experience like this one walks away with a lot of opinions about how the system works or doesn’t. In this case, I got a whole menu to share with people,” DeMenna said.

While DeMenna is supportive of the state’s medical marijuana program, he’s still undecided on Prop. 205. The libertarian in him says to vote in favor of it, but he’s concerned about voter protection and its broad scope. If the measure passes, it will be voter-protected, meaning it would take a three-fourths majority of the Legislature to amend the measure. Some of the anti-legalization points are legitimate, especially workplace implications, he said, but other parts of opposition to pot are more about conditioning, especially on his generation, who grew up with Nancy Reagan and “this is your brain on drugs” campaigns.

“(Marijuana) is definitely perceived as a gateway drug. I can tell you that it wasn’t for me, except that this gate operates both ways. It was the vehicle that allowed me to detox off opiates,” he said.

For DeMenna, marijuana had a practical effect – it helped him stay out of a clinical setting and saved him thousands of dollars on rehab. And it taught him that addiction is “amazingly rampant,” even at the Arizona Capitol. The opiate crisis had essentially landed on his front door, he said.

“I like being in the vanguard on issues. Me and Rush Limbaugh, we’re ahead of the curve,” he joked.

A green pot leaf tattoo

Don Ream, 67, shows off his tattoo, a pot leaf from one of the plants he grew after getting his medical marijuana card six years ago. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Don Ream, 67, shows off his tattoo, a pot leaf from one of the plants he grew after getting his medical marijuana card six years ago. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

Don Ream has seen too many of his friends die recently. The 67-year-old Sun City resident works part-time at a dispensary near his house, and he’s a big advocate for marijuana. As he has seen his friends die, he often thinks pot could have eased their pain and helped them live longer.

He’s trying his best to live as long as he can.

For Ream, part of that equation is marijuana, which he says has helped him with chronic pain, sleeping issues and even prostate problems.

He’s been a medical marijuana cardholder since the program began. He’s such a big supporter of the program that he got a green pot leaf tattoo on his chest with a scripture number underneath it, Revelations 22:2.

“And the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations,” the scripture says.

He’s certain more people will start to use marijuana if it’s legalized recreationally, and he sees a cross-section of patients at the dispensary.

“I know for a fact, it’s a no brainer, that there’s a lot of professional people right now that are using this in place of a cocktail,” Ream said.

Last year, Ream’s outspoken support of marijuana led to a strong statement from Montgomery, who called Ream, a Navy veteran, an “enemy of the Constitution” for using recreational marijuana. Ream has since been involved with pro-legalization efforts, helping MomForce AZ, a pro-cannabis group.

Ream has used marijuana intermittently throughout his life, and not without consequence. When he was working as a driver more than a decade ago, he used small amounts of weed to manage back pain, and he failed a random drug test ordered by his employer. He had to resign and attend drug awareness class, which he described as embarrassing because of the stigma around pot use.

His use of pot has also hurt his relationships with his kids and grandkids, who he says are “not impressed.”

Still, the benefits have outweighed the negatives for him, and he continues to talk with all kinds of friends and acquaintances about how marijuana may help them. He says being a legalization advocate has “stirred up some rebellion in his old age” as he confronts the powers-that-be who oppose the effort.

“People are getting their life back. It’s exciting. … I like being part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Ream said.

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