More Americans over age 50 are smoking marijuana than ever before. Are my parents among them?

The state of the universe.
Sept. 10 2009 3:39 PM

Puff Daddies

More Americans over age 50 are smoking marijuana than ever before. Are my parents among them?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

At the time, Mom's question caught me by surprise: "Have you ever tried marijuana?" she asked, sloshing her coffee around in a mug as we stood together in the kitchen. My mind went blank. Could this be the fabled "drug talk" that parents are supposed to give to their teenage children? If so, why was I getting it at 30?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber (@danengber) is a columnist for Slate. Send him an email at danengber@yahoo.com.

It turned out my mother was less interested in my drug use than her own. When I told her I'd smoked pot in college, and a bunch of times since, she took the news in stride. The thing was, she and my father were hoping to score some weed. Did I know anybody?

A little context: My parents paid for my college education. They put me up for a semester of graduate school. They sat through three school plays and one flute recital; they came to my art opening; they bought me a skateboard. But given the chance to pay them back—in part, at least—for so many years of support and encouragement, I failed to deliver so much as a dime bag.

 "You didn't say no," my mother recalled the other day, "but you didn't say yes. It was clear that you were very hesitant about this." After a moment, she added: "You didn't give off positive vibrations."

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OK, so I never hooked up my parents. But in the weeks and months that followed, I discovered that many of my contemporaries—people in their late 20s or early 30s—had experienced something similar. Soon I'd heard dozens of stories about retired moms and pops returning to the marijuana habits of their youth. There were solicitations made over family dinners, intergenerational drug deals worked out over holiday weekends—the anecdotes were easy enough to find. Would I come across any data to support this trend?

In fact, a statistical trace of what I've taken to calling the "puff daddy" movement emerged a few years ago, when researchers at the National Institutes of Health compared national drug surveys conducted over two-year periods beginning in 1991 and 2001. Their analysis, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that the percentage of people who say they smoked marijuana in the past year had remained fairly stable over the 10-year stretch. (That is to say, it ended where it started.) But they found a very different pattern among those between the ages of 45 and 64: As my parents' generation matured, the number of smokers in that group had nearly tripled.

The baby boomer drug uptick turns up again in the recent data. According to the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, almost 6 percent of all adults between the ages of 50 and 59 reported smoking marijuana in the past year. That's up from about 3 percent five years earlier. Meanwhile, the number of recent users over the age of 50 has climbed to 2.65 million people nationwide (and we can assume the real prevalence is somewhat higher, since these figures are based on self-reported drug use). Here's something to think about: There are about as many boomers using cannabis today as there are high-school students doing the same.  

Still, it's not easy to get an accurate picture of who these puffing oldsters are and how their drug habits have evolved over the last few decades. (It's also not clear to what extent the legalization of medical marijuana has been a factor.)   In August, researchers at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration published a detailed look (PDF) at patterns of drug use among the boomers. Most appear to have used marijuana continually throughout their lives, but a sizable portion were classified as "resumers"—those who recently emerged from a long hiatus in smoking dope.   Sure enough, almost all the puff daddies and pot mommas I've encountered fall into this latter category: After years of abstinence, they've just recently started to rifle through junk drawers for vintage roach clips and rolling papers.

Barbara, a 61-year-old mother of two from Belmont, Mass., began using drugs in her post-college years. She was living in Europe and following the Hippie Trail through Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan in 1971 and '72—a period during which she smoked hash every single day. Then she came back to the United States, got married, and started a family.

Over the next 20 years, Barbara says she tried marijuana only a handful of times, with friends. "I was a soccer mom," she explains. "I wasn't into smoking at all. I didn't think about it, and I didn't miss it."