Responsible and controlled use: Older cannabis users and harm reduction

Int J Drug Policy. 2015 Aug;26(8):709-18. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2015.03.008. Epub 2015 Mar 30.


Background: Cannabis use is becoming more accepted in mainstream society. In this paper, we use Zinberg's classic theoretical framework of drug, set, and setting to elucidate how older adult cannabis users managed health, social and legal risks in a context of normalized cannabis use.

Methods: We present selected findings from our qualitative study of Baby Boomer (born 1946-1964) cannabis users in the San Francisco Bay Area. Data collection consisted of a recorded, in-depth life history interview followed by a questionnaire and health survey. Qualitative interviews were analyzed to discover the factors of cannabis harm reduction from the users' perspectives.

Results: Interviewees made harm reduction choices based on preferred cannabis derivatives and routes of administration, as well as why, when, where, and with whom to use. Most interviewees minimized cannabis-related harms so they could maintain social functioning in their everyday lives. Responsible and controlled use was described as moderation of quantity and frequency of cannabis used, using in appropriate settings, and respect for non-users. Users contributed to the normalization of cannabis use through normification.

Conclusion: Participants followed rituals or cultural practices, characterized by sanctions that helped define "normal" or "acceptable" cannabis use. Users contributed to cannabis normalization through their harm reduction methods. These cultural practices may prove to be more effective than formal legal prohibitions in reducing cannabis-related harms. Findings also suggest that users with access to a regulated market (medical cannabis dispensaries) were better equipped to practice harm reduction. More research is needed on both cannabis culture and alternative routes of administration as harm reduction methods.

Keywords: Cannabis; Harm reduction; Normalization; Older drug users; Risk.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cannabis / toxicity*
  • Harm Reduction*
  • Humans
  • Marijuana Abuse / complications
  • Marijuana Smoking
  • Medical Marijuana / adverse effects*
  • Mental Health
  • Middle Aged


  • Medical Marijuana