Cannabis treatments are designed for all ages, from children (mostly low-THC derivatives) to senior citizens. According to statistics from the National Survey of Drug Use and Health, the latter group is currently getting more familiar and becoming more receptive to medicinal cannabis treatments.
In Washington state, cannabis usage in individuals over the age of 65 went up from 0.9 percent to 2.4 percent between 2011 and 2014.
The rise of extremely potent prescription opioids is mostly to blame for the development of this trend. Some elderly patients are concerned about the devastating effects of harmful opiates on the liver, digestive system and the mind (promoting depression and laziness).
Senior citizens have several choices to choose from when using cannabis to treat various medical conditions. For arthritis, which affects more than 50 million adults in the US, such individuals can utilize topicals and oils for direct, immediate relief. In most cases, this form of treatment has very limited cerebral effects on the patient. Cannabis with high THC content is suitable for senior citizens who are dealing with chronic pain and disruptive sleeping habits.
“A lot of these people think it’s just smoking a joint, but when they hear that there are non-smokable options, and more discreet, healthier, more convenient options, that’s something that really appeals to them,” explained Aron Swan, general manager of Silver State Relief in Sparks, Nevada.
Nowadays, with a plethora of strains available on the market, individuals can find options that closely matches their tolerance, personality and personal preference. According to Jacob Falconer, a professional budtender, senior citizens who are into medical cannabis prefer high CBD strains. Such variants are effective in addressing cognitive function, anxiety and chronic pain, without the “couch-locking” effects commonly associated with high THC strains.
Like new technology, adoption of medical cannabis in elderly groups is greatly hindered by lack of access and education. Most senior citizens have a reserved, conservative stance on cannabis, due to the prohibition era. As a result, they need to be updated about new laws and regulations surrounding cannabis products. This process is difficult for older demographics who are in nursing homes and aren’t comfortable with using modern devices, like mobile phones and smart TVs.
“The number one thing for seniors is being able to educate them,” said 55-year-old California resident Bob Leber. “There’s a huge educational process at the beginning, and this lowers their anxiety and their apprehension.”
To cater to the elderly, some medical dispensaries are changing the way they do business. In California, popular cannabis dispensaries, like Harborside Health Center establishments in Oakland and San Jose, offer discounts to their senior customers.
Other dispensaries are making their shops welcoming to elderly groups by adding amenities and designs that are more attractive to such individuals. For example, a clean, quiet facility helps make some older customers feel they’re in a medical clinic, as opposed to a recreational head shop filled with loud music and hazy decorations. Some medical cannabis establishments go even further by installing handicap spaces in parking lots, with attendants ready to assist patients as they arrive at the dispensary.
As America’s largest generation history heads into retirement, marijuana use has increased among baby boomers looking to alleviate the common burdens of aging. Avoiding the overuse of opioid pain medications, a lot of them are turning to a more natural form of symptom relief – cannabis.
“Number one is arthritis,” said Sue Taylor, 68, who uses topical cannabis products to ease her arthritis pain, and edibles for better sleep.
“There are tinctures and rubs that you could actually put on your legs, on your knees, across your back, wherever you’re having any arthritic pain. Most seniors use the cannabis for pain and to sleep. It has the consistency of a gummy and I use it for sleep and pain when I need to.”
Arthritis afflicts people of all ages, but the risk for the disease increases as a person ages. Nearly half of all seniors report arthritis symptoms to their doctor. Reportedly, 78 million Americans will have arthritis by 2040.
“First of all, there is increasing evidence that cannabis is helpful in the management of certain kinds of pain,”
said Dr. Igor Grant, who chairs the Department of Psychology at UCSD and is one of the few researchers to receive government funding for cannabis research. Senior citizens often suffer from pain caused by chemotherapy, diabetes, as well as arthritis.
“An interesting question is, if people are prescribed cannabis, does that have then an opioid-sparing effect?” Dr. Grant asked. “Because again, for chronic pain we do use opioids — Vicodin and drugs like this.” Seniors are prone to accidental overdoses, since they are often taking several prescription medications, the most common being blood thinners and diabetes medications. When those are improperly dosed alongside opioids prescribed for pain, the side effects can be fatal.
When asked if medical marijuana could be an alternative to opioids, Grant responded, “Right, or lessen the requirement. We need studies to understand that. But I think the preliminary evidence suggests that may be true.”
Old assumptions suggested that seniors were not in support of legal cannabis. Colorado governor John Hickenlooper shared this view, and has since changed his own view on legalization. “The perception against legalizing marijuana [was], you know, historically in this state when we passed it, seniors were probably the most adamant against it. And if more are using it, then that probably is going to change,” said Hickenlooper. “For seniors that want to, kind of, relax and don’t want to use alcohol, this is a choice maybe that they will embrace more than others.”
The Baby Boomer generation has encountered multiple anti-cannabis campaigns. “Reefer Madness,” debuted in the 1930’s, and this sentiment was passed on from parents to Boomers. Richard Nixon’s war on drugs would hit Boomers in the 1970’s, and purposefully targeted the hippie lifestyle, as well as African Americans and liberal groups opposed to the war in Vietnam. Remnants of these conservative political efforts exists today through anti-legalization efforts and legislation that disproportionately punishes African Americans. Although 60 percent of Americans support legalization, asking an aging generation to disregard decades of anti-marijuana dogma may be unrealistic.
Perhaps baby boomers may not fully support cannabis culture or fully-legalized marijuana, but their aches and pains may be adjusting their political beliefs. “Seniors don’t want to get high; they want to get well,” said Taylor. “And the cannabis helps.”