LAGUNA WOODS, Calif. – The group of white-haired folks — some pushing walkers, others using canes — arrive right on time at the gates of Laguna Woods Village, an upscale retirement community in the picturesque hills that frame this Southern California suburb a few miles from Disneyland.
There they board a bus for a quick trip to a building that, save for the green Red Cross-style sign in the window, resembles a trendy coffee bar. The people, mostly in their 70s and 80s, pass the next several hours enjoying a light lunch, playing a few games of bingo and selecting their next month's supply of cannabis-infused products.
"It's like the ultimate senior experience," laughs 76-year-old retired beauty-products distributor Ron Atkin as he sits down to watch the bingo at the back of the Bud and Bloom marijuana dispensary in Santa Ana.
Most states now have legal medical marijuana, and 10 of them, including California, allow anyone 21 or older to use pot recreationally. The federal government still outlaws the drug even as acceptance increases. The 2018 General Social Survey, an annual sampling of Americans' views, found a record 61 percent back legalization, and those 65 and older are increasingly supportive.
Indeed, many industry officials said the fastest-growing segment of their customer base are people like Atkin — aging baby boomers or even those a little older who are seeking to treat the aches and sleeplessness and other maladies of old age with the same herb that many of them once passed around at parties.
"I would say the average age of our customers is around 60, maybe even a little older," said Kelty Richardson, a registered nurse with the Halos Health clinic in Boulder, Colo., which provides medical examinations and sells physician-recommended cannabis through its online store.
Its medical director, Dr. Joseph Cohen, conducts "Cannabis 101" seminars at the nearby Balfour Senior Living community for residents who want to know which strains are best for easing arthritic pain or improving sleep.
Relatively little scientific study has verified the benefits of marijuana for specific problems. There's evidence pot can relieve chronic pain in adults, according to a 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, but the study also concluded that the lack of scientific information poses a risk to public health.
At Bud and Bloom, winners of the bingo games take home new vape pens, but Atkin isn't really there for that. He's been coming regularly for two years to buy cannabis-infused chocolate bars and sublingual drops to treat his painful spinal stenosis since the prescription opiates he had been taking quit working.
It was "desperation" that brought him here, he said, adding that his doctors didn't suggest he try medical marijuana. But they didn't discourage him either.
The dispensary is filled with the 50 people from the bus as they peruse counters and coolers containing everything from gel caps to drops to cannabis-infused drinks, not to mention plenty of old-fashioned weed.
Adele Frascella, leaning on her cane, purchases a package of gummy candies she says helps keep her arthritic pain at bay. "I don't like to take an opioid," said Frascella, 70.
Fashionably dressed with sparkling silver earrings, Frascella confirms with a smile that she was a pot smoker in her younger days.
"I used to do it when I was like 18, 19, 20," she said. "And then I had a baby, got married and stopped."
She took it up again a few years ago, even investing in a "volcano," a pricey, high-tech version of the old-fashioned bong that Gizmodo calls "the ultimate stoner gadget." But these days, like many other seniors, she prefers edibles to smoking.