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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Boomers see views relaxing on marijuana

Health, law enforcement officials bemoan greater public tolerance of drug

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer

Joe Lee, 62, a regular pot smoker, runs a vintage-record shop in Rockville. He says he has noticed more public acceptance of the drug than when he used it while an art student in Baltimore in the 1960s.
Joe Lee, 62, a regular pot smoker, runs a vintage-record shop in Rockville. He says he has noticed more public acceptance of the drug than when he used it while an art student in Baltimore in the 1960s. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)

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 said.

"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 use.

Mainstreaming 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 month.

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 relief.

"It's just not that big a deal anymore. It's another recreational drug, like alcohol."

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 hiring."

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 users.

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 said.

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."