Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Baby Boomers Love Marijuana: Not Just a Pastime for Youths
Boomers see views relaxing on marijuana
Health, law enforcement officials bemoan greater public tolerance of
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 16, 2009
Smoking pot isn't what it used to be for Joe Lee, a 62-year-old
vintage-record dealer in Rockville.
Back in the late 1960s, as an art student in Baltimore, he kept his
landlord in a constant state of suspicion, with clouds of marijuana
smoke poorly masked by clouds of incense.
These days, after four decades of regular use, cannabis is a smaller
deal. Lee takes a few hits every other day or so, when he wants to
listen to music or laugh with a few friends on the porch. And he's happy
to talk about it.
"There's gotten to be greater tolerance, that's for sure," said Lee, the
son of one-time acting Maryland governor Blair Lee III. "I know
literally hundreds of people my age who smoke. They are upright
citizens, good parents who are holding down jobs. You take two or three
puffs, and you're good to go. I'm not a Rastafarian; I don't treat this
as some holy sacrament. But pot is fun."
A federal survey of Americans' drug use shows that Lee and his friends
are not the only baby boomers approaching the age of retirement much as
they departed the Age of Aquarius -- with an occasional case of the
munchies. The government's most recent survey showed that the share of
marijuana users ages 50 to 59 increased from 5.1 percent in 2002 to
almost 10 percent in 2007.
Some of those users are empty-nesters, returning to the drug decades
after their pot habits gave way to raising children and building
careers. Others, like Lee, have kept using pot all along, researchers
"We're concerned by the public health impact of this," said Peter
Delany, who heads the office in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health
Services Administration that conducts the survey. Marijuana could
present special problems for older users, he said, including unknown
interactions with prescription drugs. "Doctors need to be more sensitive
to it," he said. "They may ask older patients about alcohol now but not
think to ask about illicit drug use."
But some older marijuana users say they are living evidence that smoking
pot does not preclude a normal life, and more older smokers seem more
comfortable than at any point since their teen years with going public
-- a tribute, they say, to a big boost in public tolerance of marijuana
In parts of California, licensed medical marijuana dispensaries have
become as common as In-N-Out Burger stands. At least 13 other states
allow some form of pot use for medicinal purposes, and the Obama
administration announced last month that federal prosecutors would no
longer go after medical users in those states, a policy shift that
activists hailed as a watershed.
Last week, in a reversal, the American Medical Association called for a
review of marijuana's status as a Schedule 1 hard drug alongside LSD and
PCP and for more study of its medicinal potential.
In May, California's Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, said it
was "time for a debate" on the merits of legalizing and taxing the drug.
Nationally, support for legalization has jumped to its highest level in
40 years, up in a Gallup poll from 31 percent in 2000 to 44 percent last
In much of American pop culture, the taboo against smoking pot lies
largely in ashes -- in ubiquitous references in hip-hop music and in TV
programs such as Showtime's "Weeds." Even iconic potheads Cheech Marin
and Tommy Chong are in vogue again, back on the road with their 22-city
"Light Up America" comedy tour.
All of which adds up to what some commentators see as marijuana's steady
march into the mainstream. Conservative pundit George Will recently
declared the drug "essentially legalized" in California and predicted
that the rest of the nation would follow suit.
That shift in atmosphere has encouraged more older users to take their
pot habits public.
"I don't think more people in their 50s are smoking marijuana. I think
we are just more comfortable talking about it," said Rick Steves, who
writes travel guidebooks and hosts a public TV series on travel. At 54,
the clean-cut guru of mass-market European tourism has begun to present
himself as the hard-working, successful face of the longtime smoker.
"Even my pastor knows I smoke pot," said Steves, who was recently named
Lutheran activist of the year for his work on international poverty
"It's just not that big a deal anymore. It's another recreational drug,
For Steves, the starkest sign of pot's growing acceptance is the annual
Hempfest, which draws tens of thousands of marijuana enthusiasts each
summer to a park in his home town of Seattle. But he said he has
detected a change in more straitlaced cities, including the District,
which he visited last week to see his daughter at Georgetown University.
"When I stepped out of my daughter's apartment, a couple of guys were
passing a bong on the front stoop," Steves said. "They weren't
self-conscious at all."
Although young users generally go to some lengths to keep their pot use
under wraps, those of a certain age -- especially those not in danger of
being kicked out of school or subjected to workplace drug tests -- seem
more likely to talk about their usage.
"It seems the stereotype of the marijuana user as a goofy teenage boy
has begun to change," said Shelby Sadler, 48, a freelance editor from
Rockville. She described a wide circle of professional friends in the
Washington area, many of them women, who use the drug socially. "They
are less inclined to hide it now. The kids are gone, and they no longer
have to worry about losing their jobs because they're the ones doing the
Sadler, who was journalist Hunter S. Thompson's longtime editor and
works on books with historian Douglas Brinkley, said she smokes a few
times a month, usually with friends. The only difference now, compared
with when she started at Cornell University, is the clothing.
"Then, it was Crazy Horse crewneck sweaters and oxford shirts," said
Sadler, who is editing a history of pot by Keith Stroup, founder of the
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Now I dress
like Hillary Clinton."
Police, others disagree
Drug counselors bemoan the softening views on marijuana, saying that it
complicates their efforts to steer addicts away from illicit substances.
"It's more of a struggle for us when the parents just see heroin or
cocaine as the dangerous drugs and sort of turn their heads with
marijuana," said Carol Porto, who runs an inpatient drug treatment
center in Calvert County.
Most Washington area police departments enforce the laws that make
marijuana illegal, officials said. A Montgomery County police spokesman
would not comment other than to say that the department has seen no
spike in marijuana use by older residents and is not targeting those
One older smoker who doesn't mind outing herself is Florence Siegel, an
88-year-old artist from New York who has been smoking regularly since
her early 50s. That's when the family's pediatrician suggested they try
marijuana together to see "what the kids were so excited about." The
pediatrician didn't feel a thing. Siegel said she never stopped.
Now her routine is to sit in her favorite chair each evening, listen to
Bach and take a few hits from one of her many pipes. Marijuana boosts
her creativity and helps with joint pain that has come with aging, she
Siegel smokes occasionally with her daughter Loren Siegel, 64, a
recently retired lawyer. But does her 93-year-old husband ever join her?
"Oh, no," she said. "Well, only very rarely."
http://www.washingt onpost.com/ wp-dyn/content/ article/2009/ 11/15/AR200911\