Medical Marijuana and Seniors, Part 1: An Introduction

When you begin to dig into the origins of cannabis in the United States, you don’t expect to so quickly run afield of “the known.” And yet, for a drug so storied and culturally significant, its emergence into our public consciousness is perplexingly murky—like the wisps of smoke its name brings to mind, impossible to pin down.

“The known” (or its abundant lack thereof, rather), seems something of motif when it comes marijuana, but one particular detail is accepted as a certainty:  senior citizens are turning to its medicinal varietals in record numbers. According to a national survey by the Center for Disease Control, marijuana use by seniors (age 65+) rose 333% between 2002-2014, and by 455% among baby boomers (age 55-64).

What was once “that thing curious teenagers experimented with,” or a substance vilified as a dangerous gateway drug (see: Reefer Madness), has since been embraced as the newest frontier in the field of geriatric medicine. While clinical studies on cannabis have been limited in the U.S., given its federal status as a Schedule I controlled substance, they are being done elsewhere.

A recent prospective study published in the European Journal of Medicine, and performed by researchers at Israel’s Cannabis Clinical Research Institute Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, found that “therapeutic use of cannabis is safe and efficacious in the elderly population.”

Throughout the six month study period, 2736 patients aged 65 years or older received cannabis therapy for a variety of ailments, with the most common indications for use being pain and cancer (66.6% and 60.8% of patients, respectively) according to a questionnaire administered at the start.

At the end of the study, a whopping 93.7% of patients reported that their condition had improved, and that their reported pain level had been “reduced from a median of 8 on a scale of 0-10 to a median of 4.”

By the time the study came to a close, 18.1% of those treated with cannabis had either reduced their dose of opioid analgesics, or had quit taking them entirely.

With opiate addiction on the rise among baby boomers and seniors, the information gleaned here presents cannabis as a viable and non addictive alternative for pain management among America’s aging population.

With seniors being one of the fastest growing demographics showing a curiosity for cannabis, assisted living facilities — in states where medical marijuana is legal — are taking note.

In Orange County, each month about 50 seniors from Laguna Woods Village board a free shuttle to a local dispensary in Santa Ana. Some of the spritely folks taking the bus were detailed in an April article from CNN, including the 79-year-young Christy Diller.

“I’ve got rheumatoid arthritis really bad. That’s why I’m taking the marijuana,” Diller said. She eats a marijuana brownie every night, about two hours before she goes to bed. Before marijuana, she’d get about only two hours of sleep a night. “I was like a walking zombie, and that was almost every day.” Now, with her brownies, she gets a full night’s rest.

Like a number of the patients on the aptly nicknamed “cannabus,” the primary concern expressed by some seniors and their caregivers is that they might get high. One of the most common misconceptions about marijuana is that it always has a psychotropic component — the compound THC. This may have been true in the past, as the industry has grown, so have the options available to the curious. As cultivators and producers of medicinal pot continue to innovate, they’ve developed new strains with all the therapeutic benefits and none of the high.

The compound (or cannabinoid) responsible for many of these medicinal benefits is Cannabidiol, or CBD for short. It’s effectiveness in the treatment of epilepsy is one of its most remarkable qualities. Because CBD can be extracted from the cannabis plant, its benefits can be reaped without its users ever having to light up. And since CBD is not psychotropic, it’s now being safely used as seizure medication in children.

But the benefits of CBD don’t just extend to epilepsy. From glaucoma, to chronic pain, to Parkinson’s disease, there are dozens of conditions that the aging population lives with on a daily basis — conditions whose symptoms are tempered or completely treatable through therapeutic doses of medical marijuana.

We will explore these benefits in greater detail in Part Two of our series about Medical Marijuana and Seniors, where we will also discuss several things caregivers and seniors should know before they consider cannabis as a treatment.

About Assisted Living Education
Assisted Living Education has been operating in and improving the growing senior care industry for over 15 years. Founded by certified RCFE administrators, Jane Van Dyke-Perez and Bill Perez, we have licensed more than 1,100 assisted living facilities and built close relationships with the California Department of Social Services, assisted living managers, owners and industry professionals. As senior living care educators ourselves, we strive to contribute our knowledge and skills to continually improve senior care and the satisfaction of those working in the industry.