Seniors and Marijuana

The impact of marijuana legalization on the older generation

What to know about this topic:

In the Comfort Life Spotlight

October 17th is the date! Some call it a watershed moment in Canadian legal history. Others may call it “the day this country truly goes to pot.” Whatever the net effects on Canadian society, there are several fronts of interest as this impacts seniors.

Here's a roundup.

Recreational use: revisiting the devil’s drug

It may surprise some that the fastest growing demographic of cannabis users in the United States is seniors. According to an article in the NewYorker, seniors turning to marijuana are about evenly split between those (often older than 70) who never tried marijuana before and those who haven’t used marijuana since the hippie era but now have a fuller understanding of its medicinal benefits. A study published in the Australasian Journal on Aging also found an increase in use among Australians who were 50 and older. In fact, use more than doubled between 2004 and 2013. Single men were particularly likely to use.

The Best Field Trip in America was a mini-documentary for VICE, in which a group of seniors from a Seattle retirement home went to a local marijuana dispensary. Here, with cameras rolling, they could introduce themselves (some for the first time) to marijuana, in a controlled, monitored environment.

Just one of many seniors who took part, Connie, says “I love to learn new things.”  She grew up in a time when “dope” was “completely taboo,” an era of “reefer madness” when the government told people that hemp was “the devil’s drug.”

As she says, “I was one of those people who thought that if you smoked pot, you’re going to eventually end up living on the streets or whatever, you know.” But when she tried marijuana as an older adult on her own, she found it “only made me sleepy.”

Now, she has been introduced to cannabis’ medical benefits. And her kids support her using marijuana. “[They tell me] if it’s going to help your shoulders and your neck, go for it, mom”

You can watch the entire VICE mini documentary, “Pot for Seniors” below.

Medicinal use in reducing harmful pharmaceuticals

Connie’s realization of marijuana’s health benefits reflects a broader change in viewpoint, one that has also made inroads into medical care for seniors. In February of this year, the first large-scale peer-reviewed study of seniors was published, in Israel. The study, published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine, followed almost three thousand patients and concluded that cannabis can be safe and effective for seniors. Significant benefits include a decrease in the use of pharmaceuticals, including opioids. Ninety-four per cent of senior patients reported improvement in their condition, with their pain level reduced by half.

There are several versions of a somewhat viral video showing Parkinson’s patient Larry Smith trying marijuana for the first time and finding immediate relief from the terrible effects of Parkinson’s. The crux of the sequence can be seen here:

The obvious relief that the drug must be giving him is impossible to deny.

Marijuana has been legal for medical treatments in Canada for several years now. The strength of evidence varies with respect to different conditions (as listed below), but marijuana has been shown to have benefits in treating many different conditions that can befall seniors, including the following:

Other conditions where there is some evidence for marijuana’s benefit include eczema, epilepsy, Huntington's disease, insomnia, and still others being added to the list as testing continues.

We’ve come a long way, then, from the one-note criminalization of “the demon weed.” But we can’t forget, of course, that there are many negative effects of marijuana. Some of these can be especially detrimental to seniors.

Cannabis' negative effects, especially for seniors

Marijuana’s negative effects are generally understood (although not fully explored and documented in contemporary medical testing), but some of these can have especially negative effects when it comes to seniors.

Memory loss, notably verbal and short term-memory loss. For seniors with any manifestations of this, related to the onset of dementia, the loss of memory associated with marijuana intake may in fact be indistinguishable, and thus confuse diagnosis. Check out a more complete look at this concern.

Hallucinations (occasionally associated with some stronger strains of marijuana) may be wrongly interpreted by those who may already feel some effects of the onset of dementia. 

Mental health. Marijuana has been shown to exacerbate or even instigate some mental illnesses such as psychosis and schizophrenia. There might also be a connection to bipolar disorder and depression.

Increased risk of falling is also noted as an effect of  marijuana use that can be potentially catastrophic for some.

Overeating can certainly be detrimental to seniors who may already be overweight.

Respiratory problems. Regularly smoking marijuana can induce coughing and phlegm accumulation. Those who already have lung problems may find these exacerbated by marijuana use. Of course, marijuana advocates point out that vaporization is a less harmful way of using cannabis, reducing lung problems and any possible carcinogenic effects of smoking. One can also ingest cannabis in edible form, although this, too, can lead to problems like taking too much. 

These are just a few of the problems associated with marijuana use. More problems might well become apparent as our national experiment with legalization comes into full effect. A fuller understanding of all of cannabis' pros and cons will become clearer over the next months and years after October 17th.

Sources and further reading

"How Seniors joined the Cannabis Craze." Sara Davidson. The New Yorker. April 20, 2018.

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