I invited Dr. Karen Whiteman to write this week’s blog. Dr. Whiteman is a behavioral health services researcher specializing in the management and organizational issues in behavioral healthcare systems. Dr. Whiteman holds a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Pennsylvania and a Doctoral degree in social welfare from Florida International University.
Baby boomers quadrupled marijuana use in the past decade.1As more baby boomers are using marijuana, there has been an increased need for substance-use treatment services for this group. CARF International, an international accreditation agency for healthcare facilities, has seen an increase in substance misuse and addiction among this group and is preparing for the influx of the baby boomers that may seek help. Michael Johnson, M.A., C.A.P., Managing Director of the Behavioral Health Division at CARF International, stated, “We at CARF International are concerned about the growing substance misuse and addiction in the older population. We will be adding standards for providers to include drug education and assessments more thoroughly when serving older adults.”
Reefer Madness (1937)
Why has marijuana use increased so much among baby boomers? And what does this mean? From ancient times to the early 20th century, cannabis has been used for various medical and recreational purposes (e.g., insomnia, headaches, pain, and anxiety). It is no different today. Recreational marijuana use is considered among many a carefree, increasingly non-stigmatized way to reduce stress, and now that the kids have moved out, it’s seen as a way to remember the “good old days.”
Medical marijuana use is on the rise, with a host of studies suggesting its myriad benefits for the treating chronic conditions, including, but not limited to, pain, malignant tumors,neurodegenerative diseases in people with Alzheimer’s Disease, and metabolic syndrome and/or type 2 diabetes. However, the evidence is not quite so clear, as some studies also have found that marijuana does not have health benefits and also can lead to increased risk of depressive symptoms, schizophrenia, and episodes of panic, anxiety, and psychosis.
Despite studies that suggest a relationship between marijuana use and the associated risk for developing a mental illness, public support for marijuana has trumped the documented risks. As there is more public support suggesting that marijuana is no more dangerous than alcohol,2 more doctors are prescribing a daily hit of medical marijuana and more studies are coming out on the benefits of marijuana use. The legalization of recreational and medicinal marijuana is sweeping across our nation, and it is likely that more states will follow the suit. It is evident that baby boomers are in support of these recent changes as they are reliving their youth and passing the joint once again at particularly high rates.
Why has marijuana use increased so much among baby boomers? Let’s take a look at how America developed its belief system against marijuana use. America’s stance against marijuana use was strongly shaped by media propaganda that has affected us from one generation to the next. Take a look at classic 1937 film Reefer Madness. I don’t want to spoil it, but Reefer Madness bluntly states that marijuana will make your children addicts and they will quit school, kill people, and rape women. The media propaganda against marijuana was tied up in an effort to create public hysteria and block hemp products, a derivative of the cannabis plant, to protect wealthy patent owners.
Baby boomers, known to be skeptical of authority, also didn’t buy the media propaganda in the 1960s. Similar to how they challenged the injustices in America in the 1960s-1970s and led the groundwork for the women's movement, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War protest, they are doing the same today and are strong supporters of the marijuana revolution. We should expect the incidence and prevalence of marijuana use among this group to continue to increase as this group is collectively challenging the 1930s propaganda directed at their parents and the recent science on the risks of marijuana use.
Let’s push aside what the media has taught us about marijuana. Marijuana is a drug, just like Paxil, Zoloft, Abilify, Pradaxa, Chantix, and Oxycotin. Similarly, all of these drugs can alter a person’s brain chemistry, change their behaviors, and can be addictive. So how do we move forward as our nation’s stance towards marijuana is changing and marijuana is becoming a legal drug?
We can move forward with the understanding that with more research, we will no longer miss out on the possible health benefits of marijuana and we will also have a better understanding of the risks. Despite the real potential that marijuana is a miracle drug, the evidence from current research is not quite clear on the benefits and risks associated with marijuana. While the jury is still out, baby boomers and their friends and family members should consider both sides of the argument-- the benefits of marijuana for that person and the related risks of developing mental health problems. It won’t be long before we understand the complexity of marijuana and all its beneficial uses. In the meantime, will baby boomers stop using marijuana? Not likely. Rather, as we are figuring this all out, people using marijuana, and their friends, family, and health care providers, need to be watchful and notice if the risks of marijuana use are outweighing the benefits and most importantly, not turn a blind eye simply because of public support for marijuana use.
1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Results from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings, NSDUH Series H-46, HHS Publication No. (SMA) 13-4795. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2013.
2. J. Christensen, and J. Wilson. (2014). Is marijuana as safe as -- or safer than -- alcohol? Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2014/01/20/health/marijuana-versus-alcohol