The Green Option: Marijuana use rises among American Baby Boomers

Medicinal marijuana is legal in 17 states.
Medicinal marijuana is legal in 17 states.
Updated: Nov. 9, 2018 at 9:20 PM CST
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The Green Option: Marijuana use rises among American Baby Boomers

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The 1960s and 70s saw a surge in the popularity of marijuana use among young Americans. Now, decades later, that hippie generation is over age 60, and they’re turning back to weed. Except now, many of them, like Louisianian Dee Dee Chatelain, say its not about getting high, but about treating chronic pain.

“My problem is a soft tissue problem. It’s not a bone problem. If I use marijuana every day I can function. If I don’t, I can barely walk,” said Chatelain.

The 67-year-old New Orleanian knows her use of cannabis is against the law until the state officially opens its medical marijuana pharmacies. But Chatelain says she’s allergic to prescribed opioid pain killers, so pot is her only pain-fighting option.

Her story helps explain why marijuana use is on the rise among the Baby Boomer generation - those are people born between 1946 and 1964. Turns out, pot use has doubled among American adults ages 50 to 64 in the past 10 years, according to a new federal study in the Journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

As for seniors ages 65 and older, their use increased more than seven times in that same period. The study’s researchers attribute the spike to changing attitudes and new laws. Plus, more physicians are prescribing medicinal marijuana to manage pain.

As we spoke to 56-year-old New Orleanian Robin Chambless about the increased use of therapeutic marijuana among her age group, she started to shake.

“I’m shaking not because I’m with you, but because I’m in so much pain and I hadn’t smoked today,” Chambless said.

The stage production manager said she’s lived with pain in her joints and her hip most of her life. Not even prescribed pain pills helped her. She said instead, she got addicted to them and struggled daily.

“Whew, I get teared up just thinking about it. The rheumatoid arthritis alone can some days keep me in bed. I just can’t get out of bed,” said Chambless.

It’s why, 11 years ago, she switched from pills to pot. She said her life is now livable.

“I can go outside of my house now. I can get out and do things. I had to stop my career because of pain,” Chambless said.

Former NOPD officer Jerry Kaczmarek also shared his story on switching to marijuana after he became addicted to opioids.

“When you are on opioids - this is something people don’t realize - you become a Frankenstein monster that you thought you would never become,” Kaczmarek said.

He says the painkillers were prescribed to treat the pain from injuries he sustained while on the job, but instead, it nearly ruined his life.

“I would go into rages,” he said. “I mean, it was awful.”

He said two years ago while he was living in Colorado, where medical marijuana is legal, he switched to the alternative medical treatment. Since then, he said he is a much healthier man compared to his life while he was taking prescription pain pills.

“I am into a regimen of exercise every day and it makes me feel good,” Kaczmarek said.

Louisiana medical marijuana advocate Kevin Caldwell estimates that several thousand local middle aged and senior residents use cannabis for its therapeutic value. Advocates like Caldwell point to studies that show opioid use has decreased in states with legalized marijuana.

“It’s not a drug. It’s a pyscho-active substance. It’s a plant. It’s been here since the beginning of time. It’s been used therapeutically and for recreation too in our state for well over 100 years,” he said.

Westbank state lawmaker Rodney Lyons said he’s not surprised to hear that more Baby Boomers are using marijuana for medical reasons.

“We see every day, people basically asking for help, and this is a measure to help,” said Lyons.

He voted in favor of the 2016 law to create a Louisiana medical marijuana program for qualified adults and children with special conditions.

“It’s a phase that we need now until we can come to grips with the fact that opioids are not the real answer right now,” Lyons said.

Soon, medical marijuana will be available in Louisiana. Nine pharmacies received approval to sell it across the state. But patients can forget about smoking it because Louisiana won’t allow it to be sold in that form. Instead, initially, Dr. Vincent Culotta, the head of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners, said it will be sold in the form of a tincture.

Baby Boomers increase use of Marijuana 
(Source: WVUE)
Baby Boomers increase use of Marijuana (Source: WVUE)

It will contain a liquid alcoholic solution extracted from the marijuana plant, and patients will use drops of it under their tongue for pain relief.

Dr. Alexis Carimi is one of at least 40 Louisiana physicians with the required permit to treat patients.

“Marijuana has actually been shown to be one of the least addictive substances,” said Carimi.

To qualify for the program, patients must undergo an examination and provide proof that conventional medical treatments didn’t work. The doctor decides on the strength and potency best suited for the patient, and that could include reducing the levels in the cannabis that produces the marijuana “high” side effect.

“You can get different strains and different strengths to potentially help with various conditions, whether it be for pain, for sleep or anxiety.” said Carimi.

There’s a warning though. That same study that shows an increase of marijuana use among Baby Boomers also found those users are more likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and abuse drugs.

Dr. Maeghan Davis, a psychiatrist who specializes in addiction treatment with the LSU Health Network, said there is a risk for addiction with everything. She said people need to be mindful, because any extra substance they start consuming cam impact medications they take.

"The changes will affect the way your medications are processed. So you may become toxic on a medication that has worked fine in the past. It may slow down metabolism, and you will see more side effects,” said Davis.

But medical marijuana users like Kaczmarek say its an individual thing and it depends on a personality type. He said when it comes to marijuana, it’s about providing a safer, less addictive pain treatment.

“Give these people a choice to save their own life. That’s what it was for me,” said Kaczmarek.

“We need to break down the barriers of people understanding marijuana is a medicinal good thing. That we can use it for people with chronic pain ‚” added Chambless.

There is still no exact date on when the state will officially start selling the medical pot in Louisiana, but officials estimate it could be at the end of this year or early next year. As for the cost, the pharmacy will set the price. Also, because it’s still considered an illegal drug at the federal level, insurance won’t cover the cost.

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