It’s almost noon when a large charter bus pulls up alongside Bud & Bloom, a dispensary in Santa Ana, California. About 50 seniors between the ages of 55 and 70 file off the bus and into the dispensary’s sunny, modern lobby, where they line up as either first-time visitors or returning customers. The check-in counter resembles a doctor’s office, but the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly. The seniors chat with each other as they wait for approval to enter the store. Many of them are shopping for relief from aches and pains, and they seem excited about taking their healthcare into their own hands.
Once a month, Bud & Bloom arranges for a bus like this to transport residents of nearby Laguna Woods Village, a gated senior-living community, to its verdant marketplace. Aaron Herzberg, one of the dispensary’s owners, came up with the idea last summer as a way to give back to the community. “I told my senior friends, and they put it on their Facebook pages, and the word kind of spread,” says Kandice Hawes-Lopez, Bud & Bloom’s director of community outreach and founder of the Orange County branch of NORML. “There are a lot of seniors who don’t have friends that use, so they don’t have anyone to educate them.”
While there isn’t much data on how many seniors use cannabis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual surveys on drug use and health found that the number of people between the ages of 55 and 65 who reported using marijuana in the previous month increased from 1.1 percent in 2002 to 6.1 percent in 2014. And as more states approve weed for medical and recreational use, it seems likely that number will continue to grow — especially if the people using it have a positive experience, which seems to be the case. For example, a recent study published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine found that out of more than 2,700 patients over the age of 65 who used medical marijuana, “93.7 percent reported improvement in their condition and the reported pain level was reduced from a median of 8 on a scale of 0–10 to a median of 4.”
Back at Bud & Bloom, a dozen or so seniors enter the shop at a time, perusing the shelves of edibles, tinctures and balms, and asking questions about specific products. Hawes-Lopez says many of the older customers refuse to use anything psychoactive. “Even though you explain to them the benefits of having just a little bit of THC and having a product with a ratio, sometimes they’re [dead] set on [not trying it],” she says. Whatever they buy, she advises them to “start low and go slow.” A handout on first-time use expands on that phrase, offering further recommendations: Start by microdosing THC, have a knowledgeable friend nearby and consider keeping a journal to track how different strains and doses affect you.
For the senior wellness events, Bud & Bloom features brands that are medically beneficial and geared toward seniors a la Dosist (formerly Hmbldt) and Papa & Barkley. “Dosist has the vaporizer that vibrates on your lips after you’ve inhaled 2.25 milligrams of cannabinoids, and seniors are really big on dosage,” Hawes-Lopez explains. “They want to know exactly how much they’re taking. That was the only vaporizer that gave people precise dosing, so that was natural to include. Same for Papa & Barkley — a lot of seniors are coming in for pain and inflammation, so that was a given as well.”
“That’s the spirit of our company,” says Kimberly Dillon, Papa & Barkley’s VP of Marketing, explaining that the company started when its CEO developed a cannabis-based pain-relief balm to help his father who was in hospice. “We do a lot of outreach programs specifically to seniors, because it’s a group that can really benefit from the power of cannabis, but might not be exposed to it or might have misconceptions. It’s also a group that’s taking a lot of opiates and painkillers, so we want to provide this natural alternative.”
Sharon, one of the seniors here today, is visiting Southern California for the winter, and this was her first trip to Bud & Bloom. “I decided to come because I heard that this was a good dispensary with a lot of help and advice,” she says. A former nurse, she had to discover the health benefits of marijuana on her own. “I spent 40 years in the medical field, and they never mentioned it.”
It was George’s first visit, too, but not his first time trying edibles. “I’ve had stuff from here that people brought to Laguna Woods. I’ve found some I liked, some I didn’t.” As he sits in the lobby, waiting for the bus back home, he pulls a neatly-trimmed rectangle of newspaper from his pocket — Bud & Bloom’s latest ad. He says he was impressed at how organized everything was, considering how many people arrived all at once. That said, he’s going home empty-handed. “I was hoping to find a good chocolate bar, and I found a few, but none of them really turned me on,” he says.
Outside, two women are going over their purchases. “I ended up buying… very strange names, a hybrid and a sativa,” says a dark-haired woman named Sandy. She opens her bag and inspects her jars of bud, reading, “Black Jack and Cookie Wreck.” She adds, “I dropped $285.”
Her friend, Valerie, chimes in: “And I’m whining because I spent $40 on seven joints. I have a boatload of pot back in the refrigerator — candy bars and all kinds of things.”
Another woman, Kay, has been using cannabis for about five years. “I buy oils and the mints, the little mints. They help me sleep,” she says. Kay considers herself an advocate for seniors that want to use medical marijuana: “I’m not for recreational because it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not in it for the fun.”
“It applies to me!” her friend Vee interjects. “I have so many maladies — so many physical things — but I still use it recreationally. When I get with my friends, we pass a joint around sometimes, you know? Most people won’t talk about that. Everybody else says, ‘Medical! Medical! Medical!’ but we have a saying that all use is medical, whether people realize it or not. That’s the reason they’re attracted to it. Nobody says they’re going to have a recreational glass of wine.”
Vee isn’t a drinker of any kind — recreational or otherwise. But her sons like beer, and she worries they drink too much of it: “I’d much prefer them to use cannabis.”