As of 2020, a total of 33 states (plus the District of Columbia) now allow medicinal marijuana. Eleven states plus D.C. allow it for recreational use. Cannabis has been illegal since 1937, and its use is still relatively rare amongst Americans aged 70+ years – until recently.
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 it.
In Oregon, only 1.4% of residents aged 70 to 74 had tried weed. This figure doesn’t compare well to the 3.2% of residents aged 55 to 64 who used the herb. However, this attitude is changing. 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.
The study 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 illegal substance. Over 50% of people born after 1952 declared using an illegal narcotic.
We are not just entering an era where medical marijuana is becoming more accessible. It is also a time when the nation’s senior population is more accepting of the drug.
A Rapid Rise in Marijuana’s Popularity
Research published in CNBC in 2019 told the story. Marijuana use in seniors aged 65+ in the United States grew tenfold between 2007 and 2017. In 2007, just 0.3% of people aged 65+ used marijuana. In the same year, only 1.9% of Americans aged 60-64 had tried the substance. In 2007, these percentages grew to 3.7% and 9.4% respectively.
An increasing number of seniors believe that physicians must learn more about MMJ. Important aspects include dosage, method of usage, and potential risks or benefits. At present, there is a lack of information that patients have access to regarding cannabis.
As you can see, the number of over 65s using medical marijuana is growing. We would expect a survey ten years from now to show medical cannabis use amongst seniors in double-digit percentage territory.
It is a sad fact that the aging process gradually breaks our bodies down. As a result, we become more susceptible to illness and in greater need of medical treatment and medication. The issue with opioids is now a full-blown crisis, and as you would expect, senior citizens have borne the brunt.
A Kaiser Family Foundation study found that over 42,000 Americans died due to complications from an overdose of opioids in 2016. By the following year, opioids caused more deaths in America than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. The number of opioid overdose deaths amongst Americans aged 55+ is consistently high in every state.
The opioid epidemic is hurting rural seniors. They die at a slightly higher rate than the general population. The CDC released an especially disturbing statistic recently. There was a 33.3% increase in heroin deaths amongst seniors from 2014 to 2015. As opioids are so expensive, a growing number of people have switched to heroin!
An increasing number of studies suggest that medical marijuana has a beneficial effect on pain, nausea, and spasticity.
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. He says that seniors are routinely provided with substances far more dangerous than cannabinoids. It is a sad fact that opioids are much more addictive than marijuana. While weed causes no overdose deaths, there are over 100 such fatalities each day involving opioids.
What Do Older Americans Use Medical Marijuana For?
Do you live in one of the states where medical marijuana is legal? If so, the days of meeting a shady dealer in a dark corner and receiving bad weed are long gone. You can visit a local dispensary with your medical marijuana card and purchase high-quality marijuana. Although the overall quality depends on your budget. The most popular medicinal 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
- Eating disorders (almost 80% of deaths due to anorexia occur in senior citizens)
Another reason to use medical marijuana is cost. An AARP study showed a rapid rise in the annual cost of branded medications for seniors. In 2006, the average spend was $1,800 per annum. By the time Medicare Part D came into effect in 2017, the cost had skyrocketed to $6,800. The Grassley/Wyden proposal of 2006 would have made an enormous difference. Experts believe the average price of these medications would be just $500 more today if the plan came into being.
The study also lifted the lid on the exorbitant cost of ‘specialty’ drugs. Treatment cost for a single one of these medications was $79,000 per annum! In contrast, medical marijuana costs a small fraction of these sums.
Anecdotal Evidence on Medical Marijuana for Seniors
Go online, and you’ll find hundreds of empirical cases where seniors used medical marijuana and were stunned by the positive effects. In one example, 95-year old Julia Long lost 50 pounds after undergoing chemotherapy to fight lymphoma of the intestines.
Julia wasn’t eating and was sure 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.
For Shari Horne, medical marijuana has enabled her to live a fuller life. Shari is 66 years of age and broke her toes ten 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. Shari says that even retired Air Force Colonels use the herb! Residents of her neighborhood, Laguna Woods in California, use weed readily. Bud and Bloom, a local dispensary, charters a free bus to the area. It brings residents to its store in Santa Ana to stock up on cannabis!
Are There Any Studies on Seniors and Medical Marijuana?
It is only recently that researchers have looked into the effects of marijuana on seniors. A study by Abuhasira et al., published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine in March 2018, looked at the safety and efficacy of weed in the elderly. The team analyzed 2,736 patients aged 65+ who used MMJ. They did so over a period from January 2015 to October 2017.
Within a few months, almost 94% reported an improvement in their medical conditions and a reduction in pain. Before using cannabis, the pain was rated at ‘8’ on a 1-10 scale. After a couple of months, it fell to an average rating of ‘4.’ 18% of users either significantly, reduced, or stopped taking opioids completely. As for adverse effects, 7% of patients reported dry mouth. 10% reported dizziness.
Meanwhile, a study published in Nature Medicine in May 2017 looked at cognitive function in old mice. Bikei-Gorzo et al. were analyzing the link between the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and memory. The researchers were stunned by what they found.
After receiving small, regular THC doses, elderly mice showed immense improvements in learning and memory. One of the paper’s authors said the performance results were indistinguishable from those of younger mice.
A 2018 survey asked 138 MMJ patients aged 61-70 to share their experiences. 65% said they either reduced or eliminated their opioid usage. Furthermore, 91% said they would recommend medical marijuana to others.
Finally, AARP’s research indicates significant support for weed amongst the elderly. 80% of Americans aged 50-80 approve its use when prescribed by a physician.
Use Medical Marijuana with Caution
The FDA has approved synthetic versions of THC, the famed psychoactive cannabinoid in marijuana. However, 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 than younger individuals.
For example, it could make someone dizzy. This 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. If your parents or grandparents use MMJ, 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. This is 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.
It is best if seniors don’t use weed when living alone. However, research to date suggests that it is much safer than killer opioids. Medical marijuana is also significantly less expensive!