Red, white or a joint? In recognition of 4/20, we examine marijuana's journey from the counter-culture to the boomer dinner party.

SO far, it has been a perfect evening: an elegant but casual dinner party. There are eight of us, some old friends, some new acquaintances, mostly professionals, a doctor, a lawyer, an architect, all pushing 50 and beyond. We sip cocktails in the kitchen before moving to the dining room. The simple Italian menu includes stracciatella, osso bucco, braised endive and mashed potatoes. There's wine, a hearty red and a fruity white. The conversation is lively and engaged. Later, sated but not completely, our host suggests we move to the living room for dessert and coffee. We settle by the fire. Slices of lemon tart are served, coffee is poured and then, without fanfare, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, someone produces a joint, lights up and passes it around.

On this particular evening, not everyone partakes, but no one seems taken aback by the gesture, and for those who do enjoy a toke or two, the evening is definitely enhanced. This is the picture of pot use in the 21st century, an activity that is deeply familiar to most people who came of age in the '60s and '70s. Gone are the candles jammed into Chianti bottles, the lava lamps and dimly lit dorm rooms of our youth. Pot use has matured into something resembling the respectability that comes with advancing age, and a generation now entering its golden years has become the drug's most enthusiastic advocate.

A recent study in the United States shows that reported marijuana use among 55- to 59-year-olds has more than tripled since 2002. And in Ontario, too, according to a study undertaken by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), reported use of the drug more than tripled among the over-50 set between 1996 and 2009. Numbers of users in the rest of the country are hard to come by, but a recent poll conducted by Toronto-based Forum Research Inc. showed that respondents from British Columbia were most likely to favour reform to the country's marijuana laws. Indeed, Canadian society's increasingly laissez-faire attitude toward pot use is implicit in the recent decision by the Liberal Party of Canada to make marijuana legalization part of its platform.

According to Dr. Robert Mann, a senior scientist at CAMH, the reason behind the apparent increase in pot use among over 50s is that "baby boomers are getting older, and many people who used cannabis in the 1960s still do." It's not that pot use is necessarily on the rise, explainsper Mann; it's that the people who were in their teens and 20s in 1970 are now moving into their 50s and 60s. And, he continues, "a lot of the behaviours we acquire in our teens and 20s stay with us for life."

Christine Lockhart*, a 60-year-old physiotherapist from Toronto, is one of them. She first smoked marijuana as an undergraduate in the 1970s. "I'm not a big risk taker," says Lockhart. "It wasn't a big part of my life back then. It was something I did occasionally when I came across it." But by the time she finished graduate school and started working full time, Lockhart was buying pot and using it fairly regularly. She and her husband, a lawyer who seldom smokes, eased up after their daughter was born, limiting their use to social occasions. "It was the '80s," says Lockhart, "and it was easy to come by. We'd go over to someone's house for dinner, and they would offer you a joint rather than alcohol."

Indeed, booze has never been Lockhart's drug of choice. "It makes me sleepy and gives me a hangover," she says. "I drink in social situations but never more than a couple of glasses of wine. To me, [smoking pot] is such a nice way to relax. It feels like you're on a break. You can just check out for a while. I like the 'life is good' feeling I get with grass."

Today, Lockhart estimates she smokes up two or three times a week. She admits marijuana is a lot stronger these days than it was 30 years ago. "It's a lot more expensive, too," she says. "Back then, a dime bag [$10 worth] lasted quite awhile." Now, a quarter ounce will set you back $90. That means two joints cost about the same as a decent bottle of wine, still good value in Lockhart's estimation. Her dealer, with whom she has a longstanding relationship, is a sculptor who supplements his income selling dope to his friends.

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