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Concerns are raised about whether cannabis is safe for older users

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

As more states legalize cannabis, many users are rediscovering it. Among them are senior citizens who are turning to marijuana to deal with the problems of aging. Some swear by its benefits. But as Jim Zarroli reports, there are some concerns about how safe it is for older users.

ERIC BLAZAK: This is our production lab, then manufacturing lab. This is where we make all of our gummies right now.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: A few years ago, Eric Blazak gave up his law career to open this sprawling cannabis company in upstate New York. The state was getting ready to legalize cannabis and competition was fierce, so Blazak decided to focus on one segment of the market in particular. He created Senior Moments. It sells tinctures, gummies and other products aimed at senior citizens.

BLAZAK: CBD had just been made federally legal, and so we looked through the numbers and it looked awesome as a business.

ZARROLI: The products he sells also include THC, which is the part of cannabis that gets users high. The company has come along at a time when senior citizens are the fastest growing part of the market. At the Union Square Travel Agency in New York City, a cannabis store, about 13% of the clientele are people over 60.

DAVE VAUTRIN: Quite a few of them come in. They tell stories about how they used to smoke cannabis 60 years ago, and they just love it.

ZARROLI: Owner Dave Vautrin says he's had customers as old as 89. He says a lot of the baby boomers he sees have come back to using cannabis now that it's legal in New York. He calls them boomerangs, and they spend more money than younger people. Some just want to get high. But physical therapist Lori Zucker says a lot of her older patients use it to deal with long-standing health problems.

LORI ZUCKER: Headaches, chronic pain, things that have not healed well. And so when I'm working in that realm, it's a viable option, just the same as all the other pharmaceuticals.

ZARROLI: Among Zucker's patients is Nancy Sasso, who's 70. For years, she struggled with leg and back pain that kept her from sleeping. It was so bad she had to give up her psychotherapy practice. Now, every night before bed, she pops a gummy. It gives her a mild buzz.

NANCY SASSO: It's not like I can't function. It's not like I couldn't react to an emergency if I had one. I mean, I'm fine. It's just - I do feel it a little bit and get in bed, read for a while, and I'm out.

ZARROLI: Sasso says cannabis has made a world of difference for her.

SASSO: It's elevated the quality of my life tremendously, and I feel healthier because I'm not taking a lot of prescription medication to try to get a night's sleep.

ZARROLI: But there is reason for caution. A study by the University of California at San Diego this year said cannabis-related emergency room visits by the elderly have skyrocketed lately. They come in with confusion or cardiovascular problems or falls. Marc Agronin is a geriatric psychiatrist in Miami. He says there's not a lot of hard data yet about the medical impact of cannabis on elderly brains or how much is safe for them to take.

MARC AGRONIN: My concern is that the hype has outpaced the actual data, and so it's used more widely than it should be without that scientific basis.

ZARROLI: He also worries that cannabis can interact negatively with other medicine a senior might be taking. One problem is that cannabis products today tend to be a lot stronger than the weed that baby boomers remember, so it's easy for someone returning to cannabis after many years to overdo it and end up in the emergency room. Eric Blazak of Senior Moments says users need to experiment and figure out their tolerance levels.

BLAZAK: You know, slow and low is a good approach to anything.

ZARROLI: The cannabis industry is moving fast, he says. But users, even those who tried it back in the day, need to take their time.

For NPR News, this is Jim Zarroli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.