In October, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health issued results of a survey which found roughly nine percent of Americans between the ages of 50 and 64 used marijuana in the previous year and three percent of Americans over the age of 64 had done the same — more than double the figures from 2013.
Cannabis educator and industry consultant Emma Chasen has observed first-hand the rise of interest and use among seniors with cannabis in general, and cannabidiol (CBD) in particular.
A CBS Sunday Morning segment, “The rise in marijuana use among seniors.” 2016
“Often,” she says, “seniors are on a cocktail of pharmaceuticals and have many ailments they deal with on a daily basis. Cannabis’ large medical potential can help seniors to not only alleviate symptoms but also reduce pharmaceutical intake and thereby improve quality of life.”
The potential health benefits of cannabis for this population are numerous: stimulating appetite, alleviating nausea for those in chemotherapy or on multiple medications, and relieving pain from a variety of conditions associated with arthritis, surgery recovery and nerve damage. Cannabis has been used to treat opioid addiction as well as to alleviate pressure from glaucoma. THC is also potentially therapeutic for Alzheimer’s and migraines. CBD may help treat a number of mental health conditions, including PTSD, panic attacks, depression and anxiety.
Access and understanding
Some seniors who want to benefit from therapeutic cannabis have faced challenges.
Kay B., a 76-year-old retiree from New Jersey uses cannabis to treat inflammation related to arthritis. Initially, she tried a do-it-yourself approach. Armed with a long-held faith in natural medicine and an article she had read about the benefits of CBD, she visited her local health food store to buy CBD gummies. From what she had heard, Kay anticipated quick results.
Her holistic practitioner suggested treating her arthritis pain with cannabis and recommended a particular brand of CBD powder delivered via capsules. She tried them and experienced some relief from inflammation but found it difficult to determine the right dosage, potency and frequency that was right for her.
In March 2018, New Jersey added several new conditions to the eligibility list for medical cannabis (anxiety, chronic pain, migraine and Tourette’s syndrome), and Kay has since acquired a medical marijuana recommendation under the new guidelines. Now she is legally able to buy THC oil, which she has been taking sublingually for the past month, in addition to the CBD capsules. Kay finds that this new regimen is the most effective so far.
“It seems like I’m less stiff,” she says. “It makes me more agile and relieves pain.”
While trial and error is a common approach for those treating symptoms with cannabis-based solutions, a more centralized and direct means of providing cannabis education could help people like Kay.
A veteran’s job concerns
Don C. is a 69-year-old retired bus driver living in San Diego who used cannabis while in the Navy in the 1960s to ease his difficult experiences in the Vietnam War as well as the pain of separation from his wife. In the 1970s, he says he used cannabis occasionally to unwind. In the 80s, however, routine drug testing at work convinced him to stop using cannabis.
After retiring in 2016, Don had low-back and shoulder surgeries and began using cannabis again while recovering from the procedures. This time, he used a combination of edibles and flower in order to relieve pain and speed healing.
Even though he experienced numerous benefits, Don discontinued using cannabis and remains cautious about discussing his experiences. He finds “too much negativity” in the general public, he says. Combined with the fact that “it’s still illegal federally,” he says, he’s discouraged from having open conversations.
“I do not want to be judged or stereotyped as a stoner … I guess I still have some fear that it can be used against me,” he says.
Don voted for full legalization in California (Prop 64) because he believes in the therapeutic value of cannabis over many conventional drugs and because he wants to see an end to the stigma and legal ramifications of prohibition.
Today, Don is interested in trying topical CBD for pain relief as well as CBD oil to help relieve anxiety and get better sleep. However, because he is considering a part-time job to supplement social security income, he worries using CBD, even though it is non-psychoactive and legal, may cause him to fail a drug test.
Don’s concern is valid since many CBD products contain enough trace amounts of THC to trigger a positive result.
Potential reasons for increased use in seniors
While fear and bias toward the plant does persist among some older Americans, it’s also true that many baby boomers came of age in the 1960s, when social, sexual, musical and drug-related norms were all openly challenged by the counterculture. Perhaps that early exposure helped shape more accepting attitudes toward cannabis today even though the intervening decades saw increased social stigma.
Diverse life experiences may also play a role in openness toward cannabis.
Kay attributes her attitude, in part, to the time she spent living in Hawaii as a military spouse. There, she learned about pakalolo, the Hawaiian slang term for cannabis, and how to grow the plant.
“I used cannabis just like everybody else started using cannabis — to feel good, but to expand my mind as well. Cannabis was there to help me do things I enjoy. Sometimes it even enhanced my performance,” Kay says.
Another reason older Americans may be using cannabis with more frequency today is because the baby boomer generation is starting to experience more of the kinds of health problems that can be treated by the plant.
Better access to legal product contributes to changing behaviors, too, and with CBD legal nationally and THC legal in a majority of states, access has never been better.
The National Council for Aging Care through their website, Aging.com, offers a Complete Guide to Medical Marijuana for Seniors with links to research and information about cannabis’ benefit for common conditions affecting seniors. A compelling case is made for the cost-effectiveness and low-risk of trying cannabis. Another organization, Canna Help You is working to educate seniors about cannabis as medicine.
For Emma Chasen, the path to helping seniors interested in cannabis, “begins with a conversation based in scientific evidence where the information regarding dosage, products, etc. is explained in an accessible way.” The next step, she says, is “encouraging seniors to shed the stigma around cannabis and talk to their doctors about how it might help them.”
All of the seniors and educators interviewed for this article stressed the importance of continued research, education and awareness.
Danielle Simone Brand
Danielle Simone Brand, an independent journalist based in California, writes about cannabis, homesteading and parenting. Her work appears on TheWeek.com, Kveller.com and ChopraCenter.com. She is writing for Carolina Cannabis News as Part of our "Voices from the Green Side" series.
[Header image by Ljupco via iStock.]