People Over 50 Are the Largest Group of New Medical Cannabis Patients
By The Sacred Plant Research Team
As the Baby Boomer generation ages, many are trusting medical cannabis to relieve a variety of symptoms. These symptoms and medical conditions include chronic pain and insomnia. According to a June 2018, Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine Journal report, the most substantial increase1 in cannabis use in the U.S. is among those 50 years of age and older.
Is Medical Cannabis Safe for Patients?
The cannabis plant is one of the safest medications in the world for people of all ages, including children and seniors. There hasn't been a recorded2 overdose death from cannabis in the plant's 4,000-plus year history. In 1988, DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge, Francis Young3 wrote,
In strict medical terms marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume . . . Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man. By any measure of rational analysis marijuana can be safely used within the supervised routine of medical care.
Why isn't there a lethal dose? Experts agree you would have to smoke, vape, or consume approximately 1,500 pounds in 15 minutes. Of course, this is physically impossible.
In general, Dr. Joshua Briscoe, a psychiatrist at Duke University Medical Center with training in palliative care, describes his position, “We’re always searching for a better medication that can treat pain and a host of other symptoms without burdensome side effects, and cannabis is promising as a treatment for a number of conditions.”
Are Seniors Using Cannabis for Therapeutic Purposes?
People over 50 use cannabis as medicine for some of the same reasons as younger adults.
• Pain (general)
Seniors are aware of the opioid crisis and the dangers of these drugs. Such dangers include addiction and respiratory failure. Now, they are turning to the sacred plant for safer pain relief. Some patients, fearing the dangers of living in excruciating pain, would rather take risks with narcotic pain relief.
Sadly, those fears aren't unfounded. A September 2018 report4 from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality indicates an increase in the number of prescriptions and hospitalizations related to opioid use for pain reduction among seniors.
Fortunately, seniors don't have to live with pain or in fear to find relief.
A study5 co-authored by Dr. Diana Martins-Welch, a practitioner at the Geriatric and Palliative Medicine Division at Northwell Health in Great Neck, New York, told WebMD, “The impact of medical marijuana was overwhelmingly positive. Medical marijuana led them to taking less medications overall — opioids and non-opioids — and they had better function and better quality of life.”
There is at least one side effect for most younger patients that's a potential benefit for older patients. Another less common reason for seniors to use medical cannabis is to reduce cognitive decline, which occurs naturally as people age.
A Scientific American6 article reviews the results of a study involving cognitive performance in elderly mice. The German researchers found the aging mice's memory and learning improved after treatments with THC. While there is still more to learn about the cognitive effects of cannabis, these findings show the plant's additional healing benefits for older patients.
After completing the tests, they examined the brains of both rats and found even more interesting results. In regards to these outcomes, the study's lead researcher exclaimed, “That is something we absolutely did not expect: the old animals [that received] THC looked most similar to the young untreated control mice.”
Always Speak With Your Physician Before Starting Treatment
Patients of any age should consult their physician(s) about any drug-to-drug interactions. While most traditional pharmaceuticals are safe, there are some that may need adjustments. For example, if you take Warfarin7 (Brand name Coumadin)8, your doctor may need to adjust your dose when starting cannabis treatment.
Along with these interactions, patients should stay home or in a location where they feel safe and won't have to drive or operate heavy machinery, such as vehicle maintenance or lawn care.
If you are prescribed narcotics for your pain, it's safe to take them with cannabis. But, you should consider speaking to your practitioner about the dose when taking them with cannabis. The common recommendation is to avoid drinking alcohol with cannabis.
Seniors Should Be Cautious With Dosing
It's recommended that patients new to cannabis start low and go slow. The starting dose for this plant-based medicine is 5 to 10 mg. But, everyone is different and finding the right dose can take trial and error. To avoid the psychoactive effects of the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the most abundant compounds in cannabis, patients should start with a higher dose of Cannabidiol (CBD), another chemical found in the plant that can counteract the psychoactive properties.
As necessary, patients can slowly increase the THC until they reach the most beneficial ratio for their symptoms. A 5 mg dose of THC may be too much. Consider lowering your dose of THC to 2.5 mg. This dose could offer enough pain relief without the feelings of euphoria that come with higher doses of THC. While working with her patients, Dr. Martins-Welch advises them that, “The goal with medical marijuana is to find the dose that gives a therapeutic benefit without a high, or slowing reaction time or causing sedation . . .”
Dr. Dustin Sulak, one of the practitioners that has been featured in The Sacred Plant's webinar series and docuseries, explains,9
Most people are surprised to learn that the therapeutic effects of cannabis can be achieved at dosages lower than those required to produce euphoria or impairment. Ultra-low doses can be extremely effective, sometimes even more so than the other [high-dose] extreme.
Despite this, patients should be aware that a low dose of THC is not always beneficial for all conditions.
Dispensaries Are Becoming More in Tune With Seniors
Patients are more likely to find senior care facilities in areas with established medical cannabis programs. For example, a December 2018 article10 in the New York Times tells readers about a community in California, Laguna Woods, where many residents over 50 are using medical cannabis, that one local dispensary offers regular, free, bus rides for them.
They also help with a problem that many seniors express, the price of the medication. Because it's illegal federally, insurance doesn't cover the plant-based medicine.
The free service serves other purposes. Going to a dispensary for the first time, and possibly even on multiple visits can be overwhelming and scary. Although it's legal for medical and recreational use in California, it's still illegal to the federal government. For people over 50, cannabis has been illegal for the majority of their lives and still carries (misguided) stigma.
Overall, medical and recreational dispensaries are seeing more seniors. Seniors that were confused about how the state medical cannabis programs worked can go to recreational sale points in states like California, Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts. These businesses understand that seniors need more personalized care. Kyle Shaughnessy, The Apothecarium’s Sales and Education Coordinator, explains to Forbes,11
When working with seniors, we put the menu aside and focus on conversation first – to ascertain their expectations, preferred method of administration, and any dietary issues. Then we narrow things down to 3 or 4 options as opposed to 50. Ultimately, we want to see the customer leaving with more confidence, and open to the experience.
Shaughnessy's budtenders are also trained to work with patients over 50. This ensures they understand the patient's specific needs and how they vary from younger, more experienced patients needs. The Apothecarium also offers free classes for seniors and new patients that want to learn more about how using cannabis for therapeutic purposes.
But, please, speak with a qualified medical cannabis professional before purchasing any recreational products.
Where Can Seniors Find Help With Medical Cannabis?
For more information about how to begin cannabis treatment, we recommend speaking to your primary care physician. If they are unable or unwilling to help you, it may be best to find a medical cannabis advocate in your state. Most state programs allow patients to have a designated caregiver. They can also:
• Take patients to the dispensary
• Select appropriate cannabis medicines
• Go to the dispensary for the patient and purchase medicine
• Help patients administer their medicine
• Grow plants for the patients.
But, unless they have their own medical approval, caregivers can't use any of the cannabis they purchase or grow.
Patients in assisted living communities may face additional barriers to access this plant-based medicine. For example, even facilities12 in states with medical cannabis programs, smoking is not allowed, and the same is possible for vaporization. However, unless management or specific state or local regulations prevent use, patients can still use tinctures, oils, topicals, capsules, and edibles.
We understand that there's a lot to learn about using cannabis as medicine. It's clear the sacred plant has many healing properties and improves the quality of life for patients around the world.