Seniors Discovering—and Rediscovering—Marijuana

Published In Blog

December 9th, 2016

Joy Crowley took her first puff of marijuana last year, sometime after she turned 79.

While recovering from hip replacement surgery a few years ago, she had a serious adverse reaction to the medications prescribed for pain, as well as many over-the-counter medications “all the way down to Aleve.”

She now suffers from arthritis throughout much of her body. “I take two puffs of hot marijuana oil when I feel I need it,” she says. “And I use a topical salve derived from cannabis on the joints of my hands when the barometer changes, and that really helps, too—if you don’t mind being a little green for a while and aren’t going out in polite company.”

Imbibing is a family affair. “My husband, Joe, a longtime former president of the University of Nevada in Reno, became a board member of a medical marijuana company here last year—and of course, when it became public knowledge, the newspaper headlined ‘Joe Crowley to Open One of Reno’s First Pot Shops’,” she recalls. “It went over the wires, and was repeated in some newspapers all over the U.S., and he heard at once from friends he’s not been in contact with for decades. So now we regularly get contacted by people who want to know how to get into using it. That includes my ‘lunch bunch ladies’ who are all about my age. They were unenthusiastic at first. Now they’re all converts,” she says.

Though most people don’t have their smoking habits outed so publicly, the Crowleys are far from alone.

More than 60% of registered medical marijuana users are over age 50. And a recent study of marijuana use patterns from 2006 to 2013 unearthed the surprising statistic that past-year use rose approximately 60 percent for people aged 50 to 64, and increased 250 percent for those over 65 years.

The Current State of the States

The law is slowly catching up to reality. The National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) heralded 2016 as “a monumental year for marijuana law reform,” with several states approving adult use measures for the first time. A majority of states now have laws in place allowing medical marijuana, and a growing number have decriminalized recreational use.

“Medical use” laws generally require individuals to receive a recommendation from a medical doctor indicating a need for treatment, and to produce evidence of living in one of the states where its use is legal. Some states also specify the conditions that it may be used to treat, and more recent laws include regulations for operating dispensaries.

“Recreational use” laws generally allow people to use, possess, grow, and sell marijuana — with limits imposed on the amounts. In some states, only licensed dispensaries may sell to users. And driving under the influence and blatantly smoking in public are generally banned.

State Laws Regulating Marijuana Use

As of December, 2016

State Medical Use Legal Recreational Use Legal
Alaska X X
Arizona X
Arkansas X
California X X
Colorado X X
Connecticut X
Delaware X
District of Columbia X X
Florida X
Hawaii X
Illinois X
Louisiana X
Maine X Passed in Nov. 2016 election; vote recount in progress
Maryland X
Massachusetts X Passed in Nov. 2016 election; vote recount in progress
Michigan X
Minnesota X
Montana X
Nevada X Passed in Nov. 2016 election; vote recount in progress
New Hampshire X
New Jersey X
New Mexico X
New York X
North Carolina
North Dakota X
Ohio X
Oregon X X
Pennsylvania X
Rhode Island X
South Carolina
South Dakota
Vermont X
Washington X X
West Virginia

Why Seniors Are Smoking

Critics argue that legalization carries with it many risks. They cite marijuana use as the precursor to addiction and misuse of other substances, as well as a number of other social ills including increases in crime, traffic accidents and healthcare costs. And they point to the voice from on high—a federal law, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970—which classifies marijuana as a dangerous Schedule 1 drug, alongside Ecstasy (MDMA), heroin, and LSD. The government softened this stance some in 2009, noting that it would no longer prosecute individuals using or distributing medical marijuana in keeping with state laws. And four years later, the Justice Department announced it would not interfere with state laws on either medical or recreational marijuana use that conflict with federal policies.

More seniors are turning deaf ears to the critics. One reason is obvious: the habits and attitudes that Baby Boomers, who account for the burgeoning population of older Americans. Many Boomers grew accustomed to smoking marijuana in their youth; some kept up the habit, and a growing number are returning to it after time away. Those in the preceding generation tend to be more swayed by the scariness of life-ruining madness and mayhem such as that portrayed in the 1936 film, Reefer Madness. They also tend to be more worshipful of traditional medicine and doctors’ orders.

In fact, the current advocates of easing access to marijuana point to its potential health benefits, citing studies finding it can be an effective treatment for a number of symptoms and disorders especially known to target older people — including chronic pain, anxiety, nausea, psychosis, and sleep disorders. There is also growing evidence that medical marijuana may be more effective and less toxic than traditional medications and regimes — especially given the common problems and side effects associated with opioids.

And a number of recent studies tout results that fly in the face of long-held beliefs about dazed-out hippies. At least one recent study concluded that medical marijuana laws lead to health improvements in older workers, allowing them to stay in the workforce longer. And additional research by Harvard Medical School, Tufts University, and McLean Hospital found that those who used marijuana for the first time or after abstaining for at least 10 years not only slept better and were substantially less likely to feel depressed and use prescription drugs, but actually showed improved levels of cognitive performance, such as naming words and identifying colors.

Potential physiological effects, such as an increased heart rate or lung irritation, can be alleviated or eliminated by applying a concentration topically or consuming powders, capsules, or “edibles” — in which cannabinoids are combined in juice, cookies, brownies, hard and soft candies, or chocolate bars — rather than ingesting them by smoking.

Nostalgia—and a Lot More

“Smoking is nostalgic — especially for the elderly,” according to Eric Swaney, currently CEO of Jaguaring, a Seattle-based company that works with startups in the legal cannabis industry. “I know of a lot of elderly patients who have edibles, but will also ‘treat’ themselves to a joint sometimes.”

Swaney, who is 30-something, credits marijuana with “saving his life” — easing the pain and depression he suffered after he was stabbed in the eye as a child and shattered his back in a four-story fall years later while working in a construction job. He got started in the business by working at Green Ambrosia, one of Seattle’s first cannabis collectives, which he says helped revolutionize medical care for seniors — and he has the stories to prove it.

Green Ambrosia also offered delivery service, which was a godsend for many of its customers, a large percentage of whom were elderly and bedridden. Swaney and his colleagues worked with various growers and extensively researched the different strains of marijuana that could help relieve conditions including Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, chronic pain, anxiety, and appetite disorders.

“I’ll never forget making a delivery to an older woman, who had been confined to her apartment and in a wheelchair for many years,” Swaney says. “She stood up and said, ‘Look what you did for me. I can stand for the first time.’ Another customer who had been legally blind told me he was able to see and read again.”

A side benefit: “The housebound people were so lonely,” he says. “The delivery guy was the happiest part of their day.”

Swaney also underscores the economics of marijuana treatments. “With a 4 X 4 closet, two grow lights, and five plants, you could produce enough medicine to last for months—a tiny fraction of what prescriptions would cost,” he says.

His colleague Dante Jones, Jaguaring’s president, agrees: “It’s a damn plant,” he says. “Let people grow it.”

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