Silver Stoners

Local dispensaries and senior living facilities respond to increased cannabis use among older generations

Back Longreads Apr 16, 2019 By Torey Van Oot

As Rob Read hatched plans to open a marijuana dispensary in downtown Davis last year, a certain customer demographic remained top of mind. 

Read knew that Americans age 55 and older make up one of the fastest-growing customer bases for the booming legal cannabis industry. And, as a former executive of a local assisted living facility, he was well aware of the potential benefits of cannabis for seniors in particular. 

So in designing F Street Dispensary, Read and his business partner filled the shop with natural stone countertops, vases of fresh flowers and bright, natural light. Two enthusiastic retirees were among their early staff hires. 

“We wanted [the] ambiance to be senior-welcoming,” he says. “If we can make the seniors feel comfortable, everyone else should feel comfortable too.” 

F Street Dispensary isn’t alone in looking for fresh ways to cater to older cannabis users. From senior discounts to Weed 101 workshops, dispensaries, delivery services and assisted living facilities in the Capital Region are navigating business and policy implications of the spike in interest among this group.  

“We wanted [the] ambiance to be senior-welcoming. If we 
can make the seniors feel comfortable, everyone else should feel comfortable too.” - Rob Read, owner, F Street Dispensary

“They are our No. 1 demographic,” says Kimberly Cargile, executive director of the East Sacramento dispensary A Therapeutic Alternative. “Since cannabis was approved for adult use, we’ve seen a large increase in the senior population coming here.” 

The Rise in Older Users

When it comes to your typical pot users, golf-loving retirees and grandparents shuffling to their daily bridge game probably aren’t the first images that come to mind. Younger Americans make up the lion’s share of legal marijuana consumers. 

But as more states move toward partial or full legalization, data shows a spike in older users, too. The percentage of adults 50-64 who report using marijuana doubled between 2007 and 2016, according to an analysis by researchers at New York University. Seven times as many adults 65 and older reported using cannabis over the same time frame. 

Experts say much of that growth is people returning to the substance post-legalization; a majority of older adults who report using cannabis today first tried it when they were 21 
or younger. 

“We’re now in a new era of changing attitudes around marijuana, and as stigma declines and access improves, it appears that baby boomers — many of whom have prior experience smoking marijuana — are increasingly using it,” Dr. Benjamin Han, an assistant professor at NYU Langone Health and a lead author of the study, said when the paper was published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence last fall.
But for seniors in particular, there are other factors driving the trends, according to industry and scholarly experts. Many are turning to cannabis to help treat illness and age-related ailments. Research has shown Medicare reimbursement requests for prescription drugs falling in states where marijuana is legal. 

Some doctors and advocates argue that cannabis is a safer alternative to prescription pain medication. One 2017 study authored by researchers from UC Berkeley, and Kent State University found that patients who had used opioids to treat chronic pain “overwhelmingly reported that cannabis provided relief on par with their other medications, but without the unwanted side effects.” Ninety-seven percent reported that they were able to decrease the amount of opioids they took thanks to cannabis. 

Statistics like that don’t surprise Cargile, of A Therapeutic Alternative. She says most of her senior patients come to her looking for treatment of one or more symptoms, including chronic pain. “The stigma is being reduced, and people are looking for nontoxic alternatives for the pharmaceuticals they’re being prescribed,” she says. 

Those needs are reflected in sales by local dispensaries. Cargile’s most popular items offer topical application to allow for targeted application on certain joints or muscles. Read says while he certainly encounters older customers looking for the psychoactive effects typically associated with marijuana use, many want sleep or pain relief. Creams and tinctures are especially popular at his business too. 

Papa and Barkley, a producer of primarily cannabis balms and oils that distributes in the Sacramento area, has seen similar trends. Top selling products for older customers are Releaf Balm and a CBD-rich Releaf Tincture. Drew Hyland, senior marketing manager for the brand, says seniors are “eager to learn more about cannabis for health and wellness,” most commonly “to manage their daily aches and pains, and improve their sleep.” Hyland says he finds these customers are “generally looking to avoid psychoactivity.” “Anecdotally, this demographic is looking for natural solutions to improve their daily lives,” he says. 

Continuing (Cannabis) Education

Weed, of course, has changed a lot since many boomers and seniors first encountered the drug back in the 1960s and ’70s. There are myriad strains available for purchase, many of which are stronger than in years past. Choices for how to consume go beyond the bongs and joints of their youth, including smoke-free options like edibles, capsules and lotions. Products made with cannabidiol, also known as CBD, are growing in popularity for people who want some of the soothing effects of cannabis without getting high. 

All the change can be overwhelming, especially for older consumers. “There’s just a ton of enthusiasm and a ton of curiosity, but they have a lot of apprehensions,” Jeffrey Westman, a Sebastopol-based cannabis consultant who works with senior communities across Northern California, says. Today’s marijuana, he adds, is “way more potent than some Mexican ragweed you got at college in the ’70s.” 

That’s where continuing education comes in. Cannabis brands, dispensaries and a bevy of senior programs are increasingly offering workshops and special services to help this demographic navigate the new world of weed. Often, these efforts aim to bring the conversation to where the seniors already are. 

Papa & Barkley has hosted a dozen workshops for seniors across the state since cannabis was fully legalized last year, including one at Sun City Lincoln Hills. More than 55 people showed up. A similar event hosted by Papa & Barkley at Sun City Roseville also drew a big crowd. The workshops are so popular that the company plans to host a new round, including stops in the Sacramento area, as soon as this month. 
Government is getting involved too. Yolo County sponsored an informational session for older Woodland residents in July 2018.

Earlier that year, the Davis Senior Center, a public city-
operated recreation center, partnered with the local Senior Citizens Commission to host a workshop of its own. That informational (and cannabis-free) event featured a Q&A with law enforcement to explain the regulations and a UC Davis physician specializing in alternative medicine. Interest was high. “We ran out of chairs,” Dana Welch, the center’s program director, says. 

Welch recalls attendees asking about effects on common senior ailments, the risk of overdose and for more information about current laws and guidelines. The UC Davis physician encouraged participants to consult with their own doctor about an 
individualized approach. 

That advice is important, Read says. During his time as a senior living executive, he saw firsthand the power cannabis could have for residents dealing with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, and aches and pains. But given the lack of federal medical research related to the drug, and for senior users in particular, finding the right approach can be challenging. Many enter the store hoping for an instant fix to their problems. 

“It’s a bit of a guess-and-check, because we don’t have decades of research and reliable places to go for this information,” he says. “They are out there but not to the degree of other pharmaceutical drugs. That makes it hard for dispensaries, when people come in with the expectation that we are a pharmacy.”

Beyond questions about effects, common questions for the age set revolve around dosing and access, experts say. For some, the idea of going to a dispensary is overwhelming or taboo. And with so many new forms of cannabis available, including edibles that can have a delayed but powerful effect, first-time or long-dormant consumers need guidance.

Read, whose dispensary is one of several local shops offering a senior discount, says having accessible, knowledgeable staff is key to making people feel comfortable. Having two retirees on his payroll helps give customers someone with whom they can relate. 

Cargile echoes that approach. Her staff attends weekly continuing education sessions aimed at ensuring they are armed with knowledge to help their customers. Older clients, she says, often “require more time and more knowledge in order to help them find the medicine.
“Seniors have a lot of questions, and they want evidence to show them how cannabis is helping other people,” Cargile says. “Cannabis is not a one-size-fits-all medicine, and it needs to be tailored to the specific person, their biochemistry.” 

Other industry players are experimenting with delivery models. Westman, the Sebastopol-based  consultant, is working on a new business model aimed at delivering seniors access to the exact strain and dosage they want, right to their doorstep. His company will consult with the customer, their doctor and any involved family to come up with the proper order. 

“It’s very easy and noninvasive, and it does not put them into the position of going to the dispensary,” Westman explains. “A lot of them are not comfortable with that.”

A similar service, called Seniors Seeking Cannabis, has popped up in the region. In addition to delivery, the Sacramento-based company offers educational workshops and in-home visits to discuss a customer’s needs and demo cannabis products. Its Facebook page is filled with posts touting the benefits cannabis can have for insomnia and chronic pain, among other ailments. 

It’s not just retailers changing their approach to meet the needs of the older community. As popularity grows, so does the need for senior living facilities to adopt formal policies around possession and use. 
Since medical marijuana was legalized in California in 1996, some senior living facilities have already adopted rules for storing and dispensing years ago, Read says. But expanding those policies for recreational use can be complicated. They must balance the needs and comfort of the community with requests to use onsite. In many cases, Read notes, those requests are coming from family exploring options for an aging relative. 

“The children of these senior communities residents ask, ‘Can my mom use this vape pen that helps her sleep at night? Will you store the capsules that help him relax with this pain in this foot?’” Read says. “Now that it’s legal in California, these communities are realizing we have this policy of no smoking inside, but how do we legally tell these people you can no longer have these medications? It’s tough from a policy perspective and from a marketing standpoint.” 

Further complicating matters is the fact that facilities receiving federal funding are prohibited from allowing use of marijuana, which remains illegal on the federal level, on the premises.

Sally Michael, president of the California Assisted Living Association, says the group has been providing educational sessions on the topic “in response to interest from members.” Another session “examining state and federal laws, regulatory requirements and clinical issues” is set for an industry conference and trade show in June. 

Those discussions are sure to evolve, especially as the older customer base for cannabis grows. Current trends for boomers are expected to continue increasing as use becomes even more normalized. And that will mean even more business for dispensaries like F Street. 

Purchases by seniors and boomers customers made up 24 percent of his sales so far this year — nothing to scoff at in a college town where the median age is a bright-eyed 25. Given the number of early retirees in the area, Read expects those numbers to only grow in the years as more cannabis-loving clients mature into their elder years. 

“Seniors are the fastest growing demographic,” he says. “We have a lot of folks in that post-40 age demographic that we absolutely want to create a great experience for too.”