Boomers Knock-Knock-Knocking On Cannabis’ Doors: Industry Marketers and Dispensaries Aren’t Ready For Them—Yet

Back in the ‘70s, it used to be that you knew a guy who knew a guy who got you weed. It was incredibly cheap by today’s standards. Fifteen bucks would get you a seedy, stemmy ounce, and after smoking two fat joints, you would feel a sort of mild buzz.

That was the Baby Boomer experience. A lot has changed, especially price and potency.

Most Boomers say they swore off smoking cannabis after college, but the truth is that many just went underground and continued consuming. Now, with legalization racing across the country, Boomers are coming back to the cannabis scene, surprising researchers and catching dispensaries off guard.

A recent study of 47,000 adults, 50 and over, by researchers at the New York University School of Medicine published in the medical journal, Addiction: “Demographic trends among older cannabis users in the U.S., 2006-2013,” found that 71 percent admitted to an increase in cannabis use.

The Boomers are into their mid-to-late sixties now, and medical cannabis is becoming the go-to medicine for more and more of them. According to a report from the University of Georgia, Medicare saved $165.2 million in prescription costs from the legalization of medical marijuana in the U.S., and the nationwide medical marijuana approval would save Medicare an average $468 million in prescription costs.

Linda Gilbert, managing director of the consumer research division for the Boulder-based cannabis data company BDS Analytics, said they spent a lot of time researching the effect that millennials and Gen X-ers have on the market in general. “In [Boomers’] high school and college days, they would buy whatever the guy in the dorm was selling,” she said. “Now we are finding that they are showing a lot of discretion in terms of getting something that is personally purposeful.”

She says Boomers are using cannabis to avoid pharmaceutical products, as well as enhance libido and creativity. “They become selective about what the strains do and so forth that give them the desired experience, whether it helps them rest or helps them get up and walk in the morning.”

“We need to put people behind the counter who are like me…”

Gilbert recounted the experiences she had doing tours of dispensaries in Colorado, where she often saw adult children shopping with their parents. “It was sometimes hard to tell who was advising who,” she said. “But it was a sort of bonding experience. Maybe the parent smoked in the garage while their kids were growing up, but now they can talk to them about it.”

One of the issues Boomers face in shops is a disconnect between themselves and their budtender, generally men in their twenties who don’t understand what Boomers need. “We need to put people behind the counter who are like me,” she said, referring to Boomers shopping at dispensaries. “Someone who has had the same shared experiences. And I think that is going to be a change. That is going to drive that consumer comfort in terms of the shopping experience,” she said. “Boomers consider this cannabis consumption as a serious thing, as being important to their health care or their quality of life. They don’t want to use it in a social situation. Our study indicated 80 percent would use it alone.”

Boomers see cannabis as a practical solution, not something they take just to check out. “It’s about being there and being able to participate in life in a more fulfilling way,” Gilbert said. Boomers now feel more comfortable discussing use with their doctors, and are doing their own cannabis research on the Internet. They are also migrating their consumption to other forms, like edibles, where they can control dosage. “One thing that I found is that Boomers were using it every day as part of their routine, to manage pain or anxiety. It was, ‘I use it every day after I have my tea and before my walk,’” Gilbert said.

The new and growing accessibility of cannabis is the real drive behind Boomer interest, according to Karen Freese, principal of San Francisco-based Freese Branding and Consultancy. Social acceptance (or lack thereof) is also an important factor, she said. “Part of that is just age,” she said. “As a Boomer, you just don’t care anymore. If your children don’t like it, it doesn’t matter because your children are adults now.”

She said that Boomers are very intimidated by the dispensary experience—they don’t know the questions to ask, and the staff don’t know how to communicate with them. “They may have heard about other ways of consumption, like tinctures,” she said. “But they don’t know where to begin. And the dispensary staff are not trained to even know how to interact with seniors. It’s a complete disconnect.”

“There are things like multi-level parties where seniors can get together in a community center and someone will talk to them about different forms of consumption,” Freese said. “So it’s happening on a group basis away from dispensaries. Plus, the potency level is different now than in the ‘70s, and they may have a negative experience. So that requires a whole different level of education.”

Marketing to this group is happening, but on a local level. “It’s absolutely happening, but on a very small basis. It’s really very grass roots and localized.”

The big challenge in marketing to this age group is creating a brand, and differentiating that brand, Freese said. “You have to step up your level of sophistication, how you are going to market and who you market to if you want to maintain market share with this group. That will happen.”

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