Photo by Chris Kilham

Is Marijuana Booming Among Boomers?
by Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Like many of her peers, Zoe Helene, 48, smoked marijuana in her early 20s but gave it up as her career in the digital world took off in the 1990s. Today the multidisciplinary artist and environmental activist lives in Amherst, Mass., and is building a global network of trailblazers called Cosmic Sister. Since she married an ethnobotanist in 2007, she has returned to using cannabis occasionally — “as a tool for evolving and expanding my psyche.”

Helene is among a group of women that Marie Claire magazine has dubbed “Stiletto Stoners — card-carrying, type-A workaholics who just happen to prefer kicking back with a blunt instead of a bottle.” She’s also one of a growing legion of boomers who are returning to marijuana now that the stigma and judgment (and laws) surrounding its use are becoming more lax.

Massachusetts, which decriminalized pot in 2008, became the 18th state to legalize medical marijuana, last year. In the 2012 presidential election, which New York Times columnist Timothy Egan called America’s “cannabis spring,” Colorado and Washington voters legalized recreational use, launching weed into the national spotlight and spawning a flurry of marijuana initiatives. Since then, decriminalization bills have been introduced in 10 additional states, and legalization is being considered in 11 states and Puerto Rico.

This trend, along with decriminalization in cities like Chicago, Boston, New York and Denver, has removed a major “barrier to entry” for law-abiding citizens who would use cannabis as medicine or a substitute for alcohol. No longer worried about breaking the law or having their kids discovering their “dirty little secret,” many boomers are returning to a substance they once enjoyed. Others, who never stopped smoking, are coming out of the closet (or the garage) about their use.

The Return of Reefer

While boomers looking for stress relief turn to exercise, yoga, meditation or religion, plenty relax with alcohol or pharmaceuticals. For those who don’t drink (or can’t anymore for health reasons) or take prescription drugs but still want to unwind at the end of the day, laxer laws and attitudes have made marijuana acceptable.

Many respected doctors, homeopaths and naturopaths tout cannabis as natural medicine for a range of conditions, both physical and mental — especially when it’s ingested by means other than smoking. And with the rise of medical marijuana and legal dispensaries, adults don’t have to resort to clandestine meetings on street corners with black market strangers. They can with a prescription walk into a legitimate business establishment and choose from a variety of strains with the help of a “bud tender.”

‘Everybody Smokes Dope After Work’

Clearly there’s been a sea change. In 1969, 84% of all Americans opposed legalizing marijuana. In April 2013, Pew Research found that for the first time in more than four decades of polling on the issue, more Americans than not (52%) want marijuana to be legal. And that’s not just college kids: Among boomers the number is only slightly lower (50%).

A segment of the boomer generation never stopped smoking pot, but many did. In the 1980s, while starting families and building careers, they were influenced by the zeitgeist: Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, known as DARE, in their kids’ schools. People didn’t want to be associated with the stoner caricatures they saw depicted in movies, like Sean Penn’s iconic Jeff Spicoli inFast Times at Ridgemont High.

President Bill Clinton’s confession that he had smoked marijuana once but “didn’t inhale” did little to encourage open use. Contrast that with President Barack Obama’s statement that not only did that he inhale frequently but “that was the point.”

Legalized marijuana is gathering increasingly high-profile support. Last year chef, author and TV personalityAnthony Bourdain told The New York Times that “everybody smokes dope after work.” And a host of respected public figures — including Paul Volcker, Deepak Chopra, Michael Pollan and PBS’s Rick Steves — have been vocal advocates for legalization.

Another sign of the changing times is the proliferation of marijuana lifestyle stories in the media. In February, The New York Times Style section ran an article on marijuana etiquette, soliciting “an Emily Post to hack a pathway through this fuggy thicket, particularly given pot’s increased presence in the mainstream.”

The Cannabis Closet: Firsthand Accounts of the Marijuana Mainstream, published in 2010 by The Dish, surprised a lot of people with its candid testimonials from pot-smoking corporate executives, government officials and responsible parents.

Pot Prescriptions

Not all the rebudding boomers are coming back for recreational purposes. A large segment isn’t after the buzz but is using marijuana for a panoply of health issues. In the 19 states (plus the District of Columbia) where medical marijuana is legal, it’s being prescribed to alleviate symptoms associated with cancer, glaucoma, gastrointestinal disorders, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, AIDS, migraines and chronic pain and countless other maladies. Some studies show that it might even help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and fight tumors.

Steve DeAngelo, 55, executive director of Harborside Health Center, which operates dispensaries in Oakland and San Jose, believes marijuana can be “part of a more holistic approach” to health care. Many of his clients suffering from insomnia, anxiety or lowered libido are using cannabis as an alternative to “pharmaceuticals that come with a list of side effects reading like something out of a Stephen King novel,” he says.

Medical marijuana entered the national consciousness in 1991, when San Francisco physicians were first allowed to prescribe it. Five years later California voters approved the first statewide medical marijuana laws. (Interestingly, marijuana was listed in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1850 until 1942 and wasn’t illegaluntil the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. The U.S. government categorized it a Schedule 1 substance without medicinal value in 1970.)

Like a slow train gathering steam, other states followed California’s lead. The train took off like a bullet in 2009 when Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration would essentially look the other way if state-approved dispensaries complied with local laws.

Today medical marijuana is a highly profitable industry. Precise customer numbers are elusive, but as acceptance spreads, the head count grows. To obtain a medical marijuana card, patients have to be diagnosed with an approved condition by a licensed physician and register with the state.

Once their doctor writes a prescription, users can enter a marijuana emporium, offering a dizzying array of cannabis strains as well as new delivery systems, including electronic vaporizers, capsules, tinctures, teas, honeys, drinks and oils. Marijuana-infused food products, aka “medibles,” have expanded way beyond pot brownies to include pizza, pasta sauce, popcorn, ice cream, soda and even salad dressing.

This booming business, which was the subject of a recent Fortune cover story, is estimated to generate annual revenues of $36 billion — and that number is expected to double over the next five years.

Targeting the Boomer Market

This expanding market segment isn’t lost on marijuana cultivators, who are hybridizing varieties with particular appeal to users more interested in preventive health care and pain maintenance than catching a buzz. These strains are higher in the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD, which has anti-inflammatory properties and provides pain relief but doesn’t affect thinking and productivity.

Established players are using their business acumen to shape the industry. Former Microsoft manager Jamen Shively (aka “the Bill Gates of Cannabis”) recently took things in a new direction when he opened Diego Pellicer, which bills itself as “the first legal retail brand in the United States focused exclusively on legal, premium marijuana for pleasure and creative pursuits.” Shively has said that he’s specifically appealing to “baby boomers with disposable incomes who smoked during college years but took a 30-year break to raise a family.”

Private equity firms are getting in on the action by strategically investing in the legal cannabis industry — and they’re targeting boomers. Michael Blue, co-founder of Privateer Holdings, says that midlifers represent about 40 percent of the visitors to his company’s first acquisition, Leafly.com, where “discerning connoisseurs who select cannabis strains like they select fine wines” can rate and compare marijuana.

A prime target: Zoe Helene, whose casual use is part of her holistic vegetarian lifestyle. She occasionally eats her husband’s “marjoons” (marijuana macaroons) to heighten her creativity, loosen up her body for dance and yoga, and help her grow spiritually.

“I’m not a pothead,” the boomer says. “For me, cannabis is a loving plant spirit that helps me understand myself. It heightens my senses and reminds me of higher levels of consciousness I can attain. And then I attain them, without it.”

Boulder, Colorado–based writer Robyn Griggs Lawrence is working with a group of professional chefs on a cookbook that will help people safely and responsibly make and eat haute cannabis cuisine.

May 2013