Many baby boomers can call up the hazy memories. They’re relaxing with friends in a college dorm room. The music is blasting, the cinder-block walls are plastered with groovy neon posters, and a cloud of marijuana smoke fills the air.
Most abandoned that kind of scene decades ago once they started jobs and families. But with the kids grown, retirement looming, and the legal sale of recreational pot set to start in Massachusetts this summer, some are ready to resume the party — or a 21st-century version of it.
“I can see going over to somebody’s house for a party and there’ll be a joint passed around,” said Jim Kerr, 64, of Lexington, a lawyer who plans to retire from his Boston firm later this year. “Or people will be munching on brownies. I’m sure that will happen.”
Kerr smoked marijuana in high school and college, but stayed clear for about 40 years. He can’t envision his gray-haired boomer friends suddenly returning to their circa 1970 pot smoking, “with [the Rolling Stones’] ‘Gimme Shelter’ playing in the background,” he said. “But people are loosening up and do plan to check it out.”
Large numbers of boomers already have embraced medical marijuana, which has been legal in the state for five years. They use it for pain relief, to help them sleep, and to ease anxiety and depression. Older residents make up roughly a third of the clientele at Revolutionary Clinics, a startup that operates three sites in Cambridge and Somerville and plans to expand into recreational cannabis sales. “If you look at the demographics across the United States, that’s one of the fastest-growing segments,” said Meg Sanders, the company’s general manager.
Sanders came to Massachusetts about 14 months ago after selling legal marijuana in Colorado. “We had a significant population there who hadn’t touched the product for a long time,” she said. “Once it was legal, they decided to go back to the plant.”
As is the case elsewhere, enthusiasm for marijuana varies widely in Massachusetts. Critics continue to question its medical benefits and worry that legal recreational use will lead to misuse, with both health and public safety side effects. And although many white, middle-class or affluent boomers remember their pot-smoking days as innocuous good times, the practice was far riskier for people of color who were arrested and jailed at disproportionate rates — often just for possessing a joint or two.
The state decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 2008 and legalized medical cannabis in 2012. Commercial sales of recreational marijuana are set to begin in July, more than a year and a half after voters approved the change in a 2016 statewide referendum. Still, a majority of the cities and towns across Massachusetts have barred marijuana retail shops, at least temporarily, while others have limited the number of licenses they’ll grant.
Despite such restrictions, retired medical technologist Tom McCurry said the stigma around marijuana has already lifted among his friends and associates in Western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. McCurry, 71, who smoked marijuana for a time after he left the Air Force in the mid-1970s, began growing a few plants in his basement following his retirement from a lab at the Northampton Veterans Affairs Medical Center about five years ago.
“The first batch was pretty pathetic,” said McCurry, who lives in Northampton. “The next batch was less pathetic. I enjoy the horticultural part of it. Some people don’t have the time and patience to deal with the plants. But this is a hobby for me. . . . I’ve shared it with my son and daughter, who are in their 30s, and told them what I was doing. And they said, ‘Wow, Dad is a different person.’”
Federal law still prohibits possession and sale of marijuana, but despite rumblings from US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, few people expect those rules to be enforced. Nine other states have legalized recreational pot and at least 29 permit medical marijuana; none so far have seen stepped-up federal enforcement.
Since pot was decriminalized, a wide swath of users have been “coming out of the shadows,” ranging from millennials to soccer moms, said Adam Fine, a Boston lawyer who represents clients seeking to enter the marijuana business. But the biggest market for legal pot may be baby boomers and beyond, he suggested. “I went to a nursing home and there were people in their 80s and 90s who asked about cannabis,” he said.
Some boomers, of course, have never used marijuana, and others who did would just as soon close that chapter of their lives. Joe Smith, 70, a retired water resources manager who lives in Stoneham, started smoking pot when he served in the Navy in the 1970s. Smith remembers it as part of his hard-partying days when he was known as “Crazy Man or Panama Joe.”
Smith supports legal marijuana, but has no desire to partake — unless it can help him cope with the pain he sometimes feels in his feet. “It’s a public policy question,” he said. “It’s a matter of facing what our life is now. Marijuana has been part of our culture for decades, going back to the jazz [age] and the hipsters. . . . If they find out it’s great for neuropathy of the feet, I might try it.”
Many pain-addled boomers haven’t sought a medical marijuana card because of the cost — a $50 annual fee to the state, plus up to $200 for a doctor’s recommendation — or because they’re wary of putting their name on the state’s confidential list of registered patients.
But when recreational shops open, they may consider buying so-called adult use pot through a relatively anonymous transaction but use it for medical purposes — such as to treat lower back discomfort, sciatica, or pain associated with cancer or AIDS — said Trish Faass, cofounder of Heal Inc., a Newton startup planning to sell medical and recreational marijuana.
“People will be using it for medical reasons rather than just zoning out,” Faass said. “You’ve got the fear of opioids and people who don’t want to get addicted, so this may be a way to go.”
Some boomers who’ve returned to marijuana, or plan to, remain reluctant to discuss it publicly for fear their employers or landlords may frown on it. Some say they have tried it on trips to Colorado or Washington state, where it’s packaged and labeled so consumers know the strain, where and when it was harvested, and the percentage of THC, the compound that triggers its euphoric effect. Health-conscious boomers view such labeling as a plus, and the coming availability of edibles such as baked goods and gummy bears as smoke-free alternatives.
Mike Tautznik, 64, who was the mayor of Easthampton from 1996 to 2014, smoked marijuana years ago and said he would like to try it again when recreational sales become legal. But he said he might be more open to consuming it in some other form, such as barbecue sauce, rather than smoking it.
“I’m looking forward to legalization,” he said. “I’ve led a public life that required me to be on the straight and narrow. Now that I’m retired, it will be interesting to see that culture come back a little bit. There will be more social interaction around it, just like there is with alcohol.”
But these days Tautznik said he might be more likely to listen to country or classical music at his pot parties, not Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin.
“Those of us who partied in the ’70s don’t party that way anymore,” he said.