Photo: Perry Parks, 67, takes a puff of marijuana at his home.
In her 88 years, Florence Siegel has learned how to relax: a glass of red wine; a crisp copy of The New York Times, if she can wrest it from her husband; some classical music, preferably Bach; and every night like clockwork she lifts a pipe to her lips and smokes marijuana.
A survey by the federal government found the percentage of people 50 and older using marijuana went from 1.9 percent in 2002 to 2.9 percent in 2008.
The rise was most dramatic among 55- to 59-year-olds. Their reported marijuana use more than tripled from 1.6 percent in 2002 to 5.1 percent. Observers expect further increases as 78 million boomers born between 1945 and 1964 age.
Among them is Perry Parks, 67, of Rockingham, N.C., a retired Army pilot who suffered crippling pain from degenerative disc disease and arthritis. He had tried all sorts of drugs, from Vioxx to epidural steroids, but found little success.
About two years ago he turned to marijuana, which he first had tried in college, and was amazed how well it worked for the pain.
"I realized I could get by without the narcotics," Parks said, referring to prescription painkillers. "I am essentially pain free."
For many seniors, smoking pot was something they at least tried in high school or college and doesn't have the stigma it had for those born earlier.
But older users could be at risk for falls if they become dizzy and smoking it increases the risk of heart disease and it can cause cognitive impairment, said Dr. William Dale, chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Dennis Day, a 61-year-old attorney in Columbus, Ohio, said when he used to get high, he wore dark glasses to disguise his red eyes, feared talking to people on the street and worried about encountering police. With age, he says, any drawbacks to the drug have disappeared.
"My eyes no longer turn red, I no longer get the munchies," Day said. "The primary drawbacks to me now are legal."
Siegel bucks the trend as someone who was well into her 50s before she tried pot for the first time. She can muster only one frustration with the drug.
"I never learned how to roll a joint," she said. "It's just a big nuisance. It's much easier to fill a pipe."