A new study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence has identified a large population of people in the United States that appears ready to embrace the future of legalized marijuana. Their findings suggest that it’s not just millennials who are looking to take advantage of all the properties that marijuana has to offer, but a demographic you might not expect. Or, perhaps, they’re the demographic you’d most expect.
By analyzing over 17,000 responses to the 2015-2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a team from New York University School of Medicine and the Rory Meyers College of Nursing’s Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research show that nine percent of adults between the ages of 50 to 64 had used marijuana in the past year. This population of adults fits right within the birth years for the baby boomer generation, who were born between 1946 and 1964.
While millennials with stodgy parents might find this surprising, the results are just what Joseph Palamar, Ph.D, MPH, the senior author of the study, expected. This is partially because the results build upon the team’s earlier findings that showed that total marijuana use in the baby boomer demographic hovered around 4.5 percent between 2006 and 2013. On top of that, however, Palamar is not surprised because he’s pretty sure the people identified in the new study aren’t toking up for the first time.
“They started using typically in their teenage years or early twenties,” he tells Inverse. “I don’t know if they continuously used, or initiated recently, or maybe used once in awhile. But we don’t have to worry about our parents or grandparents starting to smoke weed.”
The authors suggest that this surge in marijuana use is instead the result of a habit formed decades ago. They found that 92.9 percent of adults between 50 and 64 first tried marijuana when they were under 21 — meaning that they got high for the first time somewhere before 1975 on the early end, and before 1989, on the later end. So, the group was coming of age in the seventies, just as weed culture was becoming mainstream. For example, Peter Tosh released his album “Legalize It” in 1976, which is just one example of what lead study author Benjamin Han, MD, MPH, describes as a “significant cultural change.”
“The baby boomer generation grew up during a period of significant cultural change, including a surge in popularity of marijuana in the 1960s and 1970s,” Han says.
Some researchers have suggested that there’s a “conceptual model of drug eras” that define how drugs fall in and out of favor and how that influences who tries them. For example, authors of a 2005 paper in Addiction Research and Theory showed that drugs like marijuana initially gain popularity within niche groups, and then enter a phase of “expansion” during which they become more mainstreamed. Expansion ultimately reaches a “plateau” phase in which the drug in question becomes entrenched in the social conversation, and people become more likely to try it.
> “During this period, youths first coming of age typically initiate use of the currently popular drug(s), if any,” these authors write. “These users form the core of a drug generation for whom the drug has particularly symbolic significance based in their social activities and relationships.”
The authors of that 2005 paper also describe the ‘60s and ‘70s — the coming-of-age period for baby boomers — as the “marijuana/joints era.” In other words, that period represented the drug’s plateau phase, which was followed by a decline in usage in the ‘80s.
Still, the question remains: Did this generation secretly continue smoking weed the whole time? Or did they stop, only to restart again now that cultural attitudes have become lenient once again? Palamar thinks that this could be a possibility, but we’ll need more robust data before we know for sure:
“I don’t know if they continuously used, or initiated recently, or maybe used once in awhile, he says. “It’s really hard to figure out why this prevalence is increasing.”