Mythbusting Marijuana for Seniors

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“Seniors have special issues,” says Beverly A. Potter, a California psychologist who goes by the moniker DocPotter. And then she launches into a litany of them: aches and pains caused by arthritis and other diseases common to aging, anxiety and depression due to isolation, chronic trouble sleeping. All these conditions, she says, can be treated with an age-old remedy: marijuana or cannabis, which has a history of use dating back to 440 B.C.

Even the staunchest news-avoider can’t have missed the recent buzz: At least 30 states now have laws either decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. And older people are among the biggest converts to using it, as many are actively searching for alternatives to pharmaceutical medications — especially sleep aides and opioid painkillers.

Potter regularly extols the benefits of cannabis and educates consumers about it in lectures and workshops, at her website, and in a new book she’s written: Cannabis for Seniors. While acknowledging that cannabis is indeed a mood-altering drug that may lead to impaired judgment and coordination, one of Potter’s favorite teaching methods is to take on and debunk the three most common myths surrounding it. She did just that during a recent seminar in San Francisco, where the sold-out crowd consisted mostly of seniors.

Myth #1: Cannabis is a Gateway Drug

No question that we live in a more enlightened world than yesteryear, when the 1936 film, “Reefer Madness,” cautioned against the perils of hallucinations and addiction certain to overtake anyone in the same room as a puffer.

But the federal government has mostly remained steadfast, classifying marijuana as a dangerous Schedule 1 drug decades ago, and ignoring repeated petitions and bills to switch it to a more benign category. The law mandates that Schedule I drugs or other substances must meet three criteria.

They must:

  • have a high potential for abuse
  • not be currently accepted for medical use in treatment in the United States, and
  • lack a record of being used safely under medical supervision.

In short, the government treats marijuana as a gateway drug, implying that its use creates an appetite for harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine. But that may soon be changing. In July 2018, the FDA approved the use of the first marijuana-derived drug, Epidolex, used to treat seizures associated with a rare form of epilepsy.

Beverly Potter, however, sides with the growing number of medical researchers and practitioners who point fingers at alcohol as “the most damaging and socially accepted drug in the world.” They argue that people who develop substance addictions are most likely to turn first to alcohol and nicotine, particularly if they start the habits before reaching legal age.

 Myth #2: Cannabis Damages Your Brain

Potter acknowledges the research that associates frequent marijuana use with short-term memory loss. But she says that possible side effect is much less dangerous than the downsides associated with many prescription drugs.

“Cannabis users may sometimes have a hard time remembering a word or phrase,” she says. “But if you OD on opioids, you stop breathing.”

Potter and others also underscore the recent evidence touting the therapeutic effects of cannabis. One particularly groundbreaking study was summarized in the Journal of Clinical Investigation under the tongue-twisting title: “Cannabinoids promote embryonic and adult hippocampus neurogenesis and produce anxiolytic- and antidepressant-like effects.” To regular folks, that heralds the news that marijuana may actually promote cell growth in the brain — especially in older people, much like the far less controversial chocolate, tea, and blueberries.

Both empirical and clinical research have shown that the active ingredients in cannabis stimulate the frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for innovation and divergent thinking — both of which can produce practical benefits of improving the quality of life and making a person more apt to try out new, engaging activities.

Even more hopeful news: the newly generated brain cells may also help reduce anxiety and depression. That finding led to a flurry of researchers, including some from the vaunted Salk Institute for Biological Studies in southern California, to conclude that cannabis shows promise in treating Alzheimer’s disease.

Myth #3: Cannabis is Only for ‘Stoners’

Many people cling to the stereotype that marijuana is reserved for aging hippies or slacking Millennials living in their parents’ basements. But the laws recently passed throughout the country sanctioning the use of medical and recreational marijuana are starting to change that mindset.

Slick and stylish showrooms sprouting up around the country, such as The Apothecariumstaffed by medically knowledgeable sales associates, have allowed aficionados to shift from being labeled Stoners to the more respectable-sounding Cannabis Connoisseurs.

Potter says pot is rapidly becoming “the pill alternative for seniors.” In fact, seniors are now the fastest-growing demographic of users in the country. A recent study revealed, for example, that the reported use of marijuana rose approximately 60 percent for people aged 50 to 64, and increased 250 percent for those over 65 years.

For Seniors: A Learning Experience

Finally, Potter stresses that seniors who wish to experiment with cannabis therapeutically, even those with experience, must learn to use it — especially given the recent attention to the dizzying number of ways it can be taken into the system: through various edibles and through suppositories, patches, topicals, tinctures, compresses, poultices, and salves — in addition to the most recognized form of smoking the flower buds.

“The motto is: Start Low, Go Slow,” Potter says. “Dosing is complicated and personal. You’re looking for that sweet spot of a minimal but effective dose. You must track yourself and be patient and keyed into yourself.”

These days, there is no shortage of help for the curious to check out using the privacy of their own computers. A few good resources:

  • Jordan Tishler, a Harvard-educated doctor and cannabis specialist, maintains a website, InhaleMD, that includes lots of educational information, including a series of videos covering a range of topics from how to use a vaporizer to microdosing
  • The formerly stodgy website, WebMD, includes a slideshow featuring basic facts about medical marijuana, and
  • The United Patients Group offers research and resources for both patients and medical professionals interested in learning about cannabinoid compounds.

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