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Marijuana Use In Adults: Are You Too Old For Pot?


In late November, University of Colorado police officers ticketed a man found passed out behind the wheel of his rental car in front of the university's police station. Officers allege that the man, Gregg Nelson, was under the influence of marijuana; they found pot brownie crumbs in a container in the car as well as "a rolled-up marijuana cigarette and a lighter" on his person.

"When officers tried to wake Nelson up, he could only mumble, and police said when they asked him to turn off his car, he instead tried pushing buttons on his dashboard and kept trying to take off his seatbelt even though he had already taken it off.

Nelson also had difficulty standing on his own, according to the report. He was taken to Boulder Community Hospital for treatment."

Man gets caught high by police on a college campus and hijinks ensue? Nothing unusual about that -- except for maybe the man's age: Nelson is 60, not typically the age associated with a recreational marijuana user.

Reefer, pot, weed, the ganj, Mary Jane... whatever you call it, there seems to be a prevailing notion that marijuana use has an expiration date -- and it's well before you hit midlife. Older smokers may not be aware of the effect the drug may have on their bodies, but that hasn't stopped many from from toking up: 7.5 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 59 and 2.1 percent of those 60 and up used marijuana in 2011, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Marijuana use in adults has steadily increased in both age groups since 2002 (then 3.1 percent for those 50-59 years old and 1 percent of those 60 and older). About 6 percent of people aged 50 to 59 are using illicit drugs, usually marijuana, according to Dr. Susan Weiss, the scientific advisor to the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

"We know from our national survey [that] the prevalence of marijuana use in this generation of older people is higher than in previous generations," she said.

Marijuana-related trips to the hospital like Nelson's are also becoming more common. Between 2004 and 2010, the number of 55- to 64-year-olds who went to an emergency room with marijuana in their system rose from 3,671 to 14,019, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network.

"One of the things that we don’t know is whether these are people who are using drugs continually since the time they were younger or if they are people who are going back to the drug," Weiss explained.

Whatever camp these midlifers fall into, both populations are likely to continue to grow as states like Colorado and Washington legalize recreational use of marijuana and with new businesses targeting pot-loving baby boomers popping up.

The trend made us wonder: are you ever too old to try marijuana?

"When you're too old to feel good, you're too old to do recreational drugs :)," tweeted one follower.

"Try it for what?" Yolanda Valdez, a Huff/Post50 Facebook fan wrote. "Better to live your life in reality than having illusions."

But is the stigma around older people using the drug warranted? "I think when someone who is not a cannabis supporter hears about 'recreational' use of the herb, they imagine all sorts of horrible outcomes," wrote Laurel Dewey, who spoke to a number of midlife marijuana users while doing research for her novel, "Betty's (Little Basement) Garden." "To them, 'recreational' use translates into out of control behavior, bad judgment calls, inability to focus or speak rationally and any number of other purported reactions that hover more in the realm of 'Reefer Madness' than reality.

'Recreation' to most people does not involve taking ridiculous risks that put one's life in peril," Dewey continued. "Ask anyone 'of a certain age' what 'recreation' means and they'll say, relaxing, letting go of life's worries, laughing, hanging out with friends, enjoying the outdoors or talking with friends. All of these can be part of recreational cannabis use."

Along with being a way to relax, the medical benefits of marijuana have been tapped and explored for years. In 1850, marijuana was listed as a recognized medicine in the U.S. Pharmacopia, where it stayed until 1941. Though fraught with controversy, marijuana has been said to have therapeutic effects on 200 medical conditions, including cancer, Alzheimer's and HIV/AIDS.

"Doing them is never the problem," wrote Facebook fan Tommie Baines. "How about recovery? Or simply getting your business handled afterward? I need a week off if I party too hard, and I'm already forgetting stuff. I don't see how recreational drugs help me with my life at all..."

These are very real concerns, noted Weiss of the National Institute fo Drug Abuse. She said that the negative effects of marijuana can be even stronger in older users compared to younger smokers: "For somebody who is older, the effects may be the same but the baseline is different." Though Weiss admits there isn't a large body of research on marijuana use in this demographic, she said that one still could speculate on the effects based on what is already known about the drug.

Cognitive Impairment: "We do know that marijuana affects short-term memory: that's what makes it hard to remember what you just did or what you just said," Weiss explained. "Those effects tend to last during the period of intoxication and then they go away in someone who uses the drug occasionally. For somebody who uses the drug regularly, the effects can last beyond the point of intoxication, so they may be compromised the next day, or maybe the next two days. If you have somebody who is older to begin with and they have some impaired cognitive functioning, it’s possible that marijuana would be even more distrubtive to them.

"As you get older, you metabolize drugs more slowly so they can stay in your system a lot longer," Weiss said. "It’s another reason why it’s impairing effects on memory might last longer than in someone who is young."

Increased Heart Rate, Rate Of Breathing And Blood Pressure: Marijuana is known to cause all of these symptoms -- which could be problematic for some older marijuana users who may have impaired cardiac functioning, Weiss said. "There does seem to be an increased risk for heart attack after the first half hour of smoking marijuana."

Medicine Interactions: Marijuana may not interact well with prescriptions you're already taking, which is more of a worry for older users than younger ones, Weiss said. "They could be taking drugs like Valium, which could also affect their memory, their thinking and their coordination, so you could also have an increased risk of falls and accidents." Medicines that do not interact well with marijuana include barbiturates, Ambien and Ativan.

Marijuana Is A LOT Stronger These Days: "The potency of marijuana has gone up a lot since the 1980s. It used to be 2-3 percent THC -- the active ingredient in marijuana that gets people high and causes [side effects]," Weiss said. "Now the average THC in marijuana is 9-10 percent. That means people can be exposed to higher doses than they’re used to, and one thing we know about exposure to high doses [is that it] can be linked to feelings of paranoia and anxiety and even acute psychosis."

Addiction: Though there are varying viewpoints as to whether or not marijuana is addictive, Weiss said there is an increase in adults seeking treatment for marijuana abuse. (The Drug Policy Alliance has stated that this increase does not reflect actual clinical dependence on the drug.)

No matter what, if you're going to smoke up -- whether freely enjoying your states' new law or taking illicit tokes at home -- do it safely.

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