By Cassandra Dowell
Between 2012 and 2050 the United States will experience a considerable increase in its older population, with aging baby boomers largely contributing to that growth. American’s graying population has wide-ranging implications for the legal cannabis industry, which grew from $1.5 billion in 2013 to $2.7 billion in 2014.
Already baby boomers play a significant role as a consumer of recreational and medical dispensaries’ products. But some industry members believe more can be done to involve them in the evolving conversation surrounding cannabis legalization. In addition, baby boomers can play a key role in the marijuana workforce, as many Americans now say they want to work in retirement.
“It is still surprising to people that baby boomers make up a significant portion of the market,” said Taylor West, deputy director with the National Cannabis Industry Association. “We need to do a better job of incorporating their voices when we talk about what it means to have a legal cannabis market.”
The Baby Boomer Consumer
Research shows more older Americans are using marijuana than in years past. According to a recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 7 percent of Americans age 55 to 59 consumed cannabis in 2013, up from 1.6 percent in 2002. Adults age 60 to 64 consuming cannabis nearly doubled from 2.4 percent in 2002 to 4.7 percent in 2013.
“A lot of dispensaries report the largest demographic [of clients] is that baby boomer demographic,” West said, noting there is an incorrect assumption that the core consumer is younger. And that largely older client base will likely get bigger. In 2050, the population aged 65 and over is projected to be 83.7 million, almost double its estimated population of 43.1 million in 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
“Even if you don’t have a medical card, marijuana can provide therapeutic value for those things you begin to experience as you age,” West said.
In addition, cannabis is attractive to older Americans seeking an alternative to alcohol. About seven-in-10 Americans believe alcohol is more harmful to a person’s health than marijuana, according to a February 2014 Pew Research survey. “As you get older you start to feel the effects of hangovers more often,” West said. “Folks are looking for ways to unwind that do not make them feel like they have poisoned themselves. Cannabis is great for that.”
An Untapped Advocacy Group
Baby boomers are increasingly on the forefront of legalization efforts, but more can be done to include their voices in the legalization movement.
Half of boomers favor legalization, among the highest percentages ever, according to Pew Research Center’s March 2015 survey. “I think crime would be lower if they legalized marijuana,” a 62-year-old female survey respondent told Pew regarding her reason for supporting cannabis legalization. “It would put the drug dealers out of business.”
Four states—Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska—and the District of Columbia have passed measures to legalize marijuana use, while an additional 14 states have decriminalized certain amounts of marijuana possession. Including those five locations, nearly half of U.S. states (23 plus D.C.) allow medical marijuana. While progress has been made, the remaining states, and federal government, still have a long way to go when it comes to marijuana reform.
“You are seeing baby boomers taking part in these movements, especially on the medical side because a lot of them are using cannabis to deal with conditions that have come with age,” West said. “But more can be done.”
The more that baby boomers are encouraged to share their views regarding use and legalization the less stigmatized marijuana will become, West said. “It is important that people see the true faces of [cannabis consumers] — the reality of who is choosing cannabis and why,” she said. “The more that baby boomers who are making that choice are public about it, the more we start to challenge stigmas surrounding the market.”
A Second Career Enthusiast
Data shows that labor force participation among older adults has not declined, contrary to popular belief. In fact, the labor force participation rate for those 55 and older in 2013 is slightly higher than in either 2007 or 2010, according to a 2014 study from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
Many Americans are planning to work into retirement, or return to work after retiring, with 39 percent of Americans saying they expect to work for as long as they can because they like to work, according to a recent Bankrate Financial Literacy poll.
The cannabis industry offers many different types of employment opportunities, “especially for people who have experience with various aspects of running a business,” West said, noting that there are also viable mentor opportunities for older Americans looking to share their experience with younger entrepreneurs.
Cannabis industry staffing agency Viridian Staffing has observed an uptick in baby boomers who are interested in the industry, said Kara Bradford, chief talent officer at Viridian Staffing. “Many of them have reached a zenith in their career,” Bradford said. “They look to the cannabis industry as something new and exciting. They are not ready to retire yet, and have a lot of great insight that they can offer.”
In addition, some baby boomers are looking to the cannabis industry as an investment opportunity. “They’ve seen wealth come and go a couple of times and are looking to invest in a business that they can also have hands on experience in growing and developing,” she said.
As the cannabis market continues to expand, so too will its clientele of aging baby boomers. It behooves industry members to recognize the many roles older Americans can play in the sector, including consumer, advocate, employee or mentor.