Is Medical Marijuana Good for Old People?

Attitudes are changing across the generation gap


After the 2018 midterms, a total of 33 states (plus the District of Columbia) now allow medicinal marijuana, and ten states plus D.C. allow it for recreational use. Cannabis has been federally illegal since 1936, and its use is still relatively rare amongst Americans aged 70+. Back in 2012, a study by the Public Health Institute showed that just 2.2% of seniors aged 66+ had tried medical marijuana in California. However, 5% of Californians aged 25 to 65 had used medical weed.

In Oregon, only 1.4% of residents aged 70 to 74 had tried weed, compared to 3.2% of residents aged 55 to 64. However, this attitude is set to change as a significant proportion of the Baby Boomer generation is now well into retirement age. A 2012 federal study showed that 1948 is a pivotal birth year in terms of attitude to drugs.

In the study, it was revealed that just 20% of Americans born before 1948 had ever used weed or any other illicit drug. 48% of Americans born between 1948 and 1952 admitted to using an illicit substance, and over 50% of people born after 1952 admitting using an illegal narcotic.
In other words, we are not just entering an era where medical marijuana is becoming more accessible, but at the same time that the nation’s senior population becomes more accepting of the drug.

The rise in use amongst older Americans is seen in a National Survey on Drug Use and Health that was conducted in 2015 and 2016. It found that 9% of Americans aged 50 to 64 used marijuana in the previous year— just 3% of people aged 65+ used weed during the same timeframe. In 2013, the same survey found that just 1.4% of Americans used marijuana the previous year, compared to 7% of people aged 50 to 64.

As you can see, the number of over 65s using medical marijuana is growing, and we would expect a similar survey ten years from now to show medical cannabis use amongst seniors in double-digit percentage territory.

Safety First

It is a sad fact that the aging process gradually breaks our body down and makes us more susceptible to illness. As a result, we are in greater need of medical treatment and medication the older we get. The issue with opioids is now a full-blown crisis, and as you would expect, senior citizens have been hit hardest.

A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that over 42,000 Americans died due to complications from an overdose of opioids in 2016. It was unable to provide a complete demographic breakdown due to lack of information from specific states, but the number of opioid overdose deaths amongst Americans aged 55+ is consistently high in every state.

There are now a growing number of studies which suggest that medical marijuana has a beneficial effect on pain, nausea, and spasticity. While the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, stated that cannabinoids provided a ‘modest’ benefit – for seniors in pain, ‘modest’ is more than sufficient.

Dr. Joshua Briscoe works at the Duke University School of Medicine as a palliative care physician and says that seniors are routinely provided with substances far more dangerous than cannabinoids. It is a sad fact that opioids are far more addictive than marijuana, and while weed causes no overdose deaths, there are over 100 such fatalities each day involving opioids.

What Do Older Americans Use Medical Marijuana For?

First and foremost, if you live in one of the states where medical marijuana is legal, the days of meeting a shady dealer in a dark corner and receiving weed of questionable quality are long gone. You can visit a local dispensary with your medical marijuana card and purchase high-quality weed, although the overall quality depends on your budget. The most popular medical uses of cannabis amongst seniors include:

  • Help with nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms associated with chemotherapy.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Anxiety or mental health disorders
  • Chronic Pain
  • Glaucoma
  • Eating disorders (almost 80% of deaths due to anorexia occur in senior citizens)
  • Insomnia

Another reason to use medical marijuana is cost. Seniors spend close to $3,000 a year on prescription drugs. In contrast, the national average spent on medical marijuana per annum is around $650.

If you go browse news websites, you will find hundreds of anecdotal cases where seniors used medical marijuana and were stunned by the positive effects. In one case, Julia Long was 95 years old and lost 50 pounds after undergoing chemotherapy to fight lymphoma of the intestines.

Julia wasn’t eating and was certain to die, until she tried a marijuana-infused tea brewed by her sister, Palastine. Within half an hour, Julia announced that she was hungry and began an incredible turnaround. Eventually, she regained most of her lost weight and noticed a boost in overall strength. Her physical recovery was complete as her newly strengthened body successfully made it through chemotherapy, and she was told that her cancer was in remission.

For Shari Horne, medical marijuana has enabled her to live a fuller life. Shari is 66 years of age and broke her toes 10 years ago. It was a bad break which meant plates, pins, and screws were inserted into her feet. She uses a salve containing cannabidiol (CBD), a non-intoxicating cannabinoid, that helps with the pain.

According to Shari, almost everyone she knows is using medical marijuana. Her husband, Hal, uses it to sleep, and Shari says that even retired Air Force Colonels use the herb! Indeed, so many residents of her neighborhood, Laguna Woods in California, use weed that Bud and Bloom, a local dispensary, charters a free bus to bring residents to its store in Santa Ana to stock up on cannabis!

Use Medical Marijuana with Caution

Although the FDA has approved synthetic versions of THC, the famed psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana, the vast majority of patients prefer the real thing. One issue with using medical cannabis is the drowsiness that can accompany it. Also, it is a fact that older people metabolize medications differently to younger individuals.

For example, it could make someone dizzy which would increase a senior citizen’s risk of falling and severely injuring themselves. It is also important not to drive under the influence of marijuana. There is a danger of mixing weed with other medications and alcohol, a potentially dangerous cocktail. Therefore, if your parent or grandparent is using medical marijuana, try to make sure that they aren’t alone when its effects kick in.

Final Thoughts on Medical Marijuana for Seniors

There is a change in how older Americans perceive marijuana. As the Baby Boomer generation continues to reach retirement age, it is more likely that seniors will use marijuana, probably because they are more likely to have been exposed to it in their youth than their parents.

At present, marijuana is still federally illegal which makes it hard to find useful studies. However, as more states legalize the herb, it should become possible for scientists to conduct more research. For millions of seniors, medical marijuana offers a shred of hope. Whether they have chronic pain, depression, or Alzheimer’s, there is a possibility that medical marijuana can help.

While it is best if seniors don’t use weed when living alone, research to date suggests that it is much safer than killer opioids. Medical marijuana is also significantly less expensive!