Bongs and baby boomers: Trends in cannabis use among older Australians

October 2016
Kostadinov, V., & Roche, A. (2016). Bongs and baby boomers: Trends in cannabis use among older Australians. Australasian Journal on Ageing. (Early online view). doi: 10.1111/ajag.12357

Traditionally, AOD research and service delivery has focused on younger age groups. There are however emerging indications that substance use is increasing among older Australians at an alarming rate. Importantly, cannabis use among older Australians has increased significantly over the past decade. This is in direct contrast to declining use (over several years) in younger age groups. In addition, due to ageing-related physiological changes, cannabis use among older people can place them at greater risk of harm.

This has important implications for not only the AOD sector but also aged care support services.

To investigate the prevalence, patterns and predictors of cannabis use among older Australians, the authors conducted secondary analyses on data from the 2004 and 2013 National Drug Strategy Household Surveys (NDSHS). Only data from participants aged 50+ years were included in the analyses. This resulted in samples of 11,890 from 2004 and 11,367 from 2013.

While sample characteristics were relatively consistent across both survey years, there were substantial differences between cannabis users and non-users.

The authors found that a significantly (P < 0.01) higher proportion of older Australians reported using cannabis in 2013 (3.6%) compared to 2004 (1.5%). In both 2004 and 2013, there was an inverse relationship between cannabis use and age with more younger (i.e. <50 years) than older (i.e. >50 years) respondents reporting use. The study also found that cannabis use was significantly (P < 0.01) more likely among those who were male, unmarried, risky drinkers, smokers and polydrug users and significantly less likely among those who were older.

The authors note that the study utilised NDSHS self-reported data which is weighted to be representative of the total Australian population. However, it is still possible that particularly vulnerable older people who are in poor health, socially isolated and in aged care services may have been less likely to respond. Hence, the findings from the current may be an under-representation of the real extent of cannabis use and related harm among older Australians.

What does it mean and what can be done?

The current study found that cannabis use has increased among older Australians over the past decade and that age, sex, marital status and other substance use are significant predictors of cannabis use among older Australians. It is vital that all healthcare and aged care services have the ability and capacity to appropriately respond to increasing numbers of older cannabis and other drug users. Ideally, this should include the development of more specifically designated services for older people; assistance with costs associated with treatment; and strategies to minimise stigma/discrimination. Age-appropriate interventions are required to prevent, treat and manage cannabis and other drug use. Importantly, such interventions should take into account the substantial heterogeneity of older clients and differences in their needs including potential concomitant mental health issues.