America’s changing attitudes about marijuana mean some middle-age and older folks are trying it for the first time, while others who smoked pot in their youth are returning to it in greater numbers.
A federal study by researchers at New York University School of Medicine and the Center for Drug Use and HIV/HCV Research at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing found that 9 percent of adults 50 to 64 and 3 percent of those 65 and older reported using marijuana in the past year. That’s a substantial increase in use over the past decade — double the percentage of adults 50 to 64 (4.5 percent) and more than seven times the percentage of adults 65 and older (0.4 percent) reporting use in 2006-07.
The possible medicinal benefits of marijuana may have people wondering whether it’s right for them.
“As marijuana becomes legalized in several states and destigmatized, based on my clinical experience many older adults want to try it to see if it will help with a variety of symptoms of chronic diseases. The most common symptoms I see older people turn to marijuana for are sleep and pain,” said Dr. Benjamin Han, an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Geriatric Medicine and Palliative Care and Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health and the study’s lead author.
Other patients are asking whether medical marijuana will help with a wide variety of health problems, including eczema and diabetes, which there is no indication for, Han said.
In Pine Bluff, resident Jan Singleton said she has been approved by her physician to obtain a medical marijuana prescription once growing and dispensing operations are up and running. Voters in the Natural State approved medical marijuana sales in 2016. It’s expected to be at least another year before it’s available to patients, however, due to unforeseen political red tape such as legal challenges and licensing delays.
“I just want some relief,” said Singleton, who suffers from an illness she preferred not to disclose.
Diseases that are included in the approval process for a medical marijuana card are: Cancer; glaucoma; positive status for human immunodeficiency virus/ acquired immune deficiency syndrome; hepatitis C; Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Tourette’s syndrome
Crohn’s disease; ulcerative colitis; post-traumatic stress disorder; severe arthritis; fibromyalgia; Alzheimer’s disease; cachexia or wasting syndrome; peripheral neuropathy; intractable pain which is pain that has not responded to ordinary medications, treatment or surgical measures for more than six months;
Severe nausea; seizures, including without limitation those characteristics of epilepsy; severe and persistent muscle spasms including without limitation those characteristics of multiple sclerosis and any other medical condition or its treatment approved by the Department of Health.
Singleton, 60, said she has been through a menagerie of other prescription medications that “just haven’t worked.”
“I am at the end of the rope,” she said. “Voters passed this thing three years ago now, it’s time that we can get something that so many of us desperately need.”
Boomers on board
While the popular perception may be that younger people are getting in on the trend, “people who are 40 to 80 represent a significant number of the about 100 phone calls a day that we receive,” said Corbin Wyatt, chief executive officer of The Peak Plaza Dispensary in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which sells CBD products and is on board to sell medicinal marijuana now that it is legal in that state.
“Most people are calling and asking about the medicinal health benefits. They have anxiety, trouble sleeping, chronic pain. The feel disenchanted with taking 10 to 15 pills a day and are willing to try something different,” Wyatt said. It’s about a 50-50 split between new and returning users, Wyatt said.
From the study, most baby boomers who recently used marijuana first used as teens during the 1960s and 1970s, said Dr. Joseph Palamar, the study’s senior author and an associate professor in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health. This doesn’t mean these individuals have been smoking marijuana for all these years, but most current users are by no means new initiates, Palamar said.
‘Nothing is harmless’
While marijuana has been shown to have benefits in treating certain conditions, including neuropathic pain and nausea, from a public health standpoint researchers are concerned, Han said.
“Marijuana has not been well-studied and so we do not know the benefits or risks for older adults, who may be at much higher risk for adverse effects,” he said. “Nothing is harmless, especially if you have existing chronic diseases and are taking prescribed medications, so this could potentially be a big public health issue. In particular, the combining of other psychoactive drugs or alcohol can be particularly risky for older adults.”
The cannabis that people smoked decades ago is not the same as what’s being offered in dispensaries today, said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a nonprofit that promotes legalization and responsible use of cannabis.
“The primary difference is that in many jurisdictions, accessing and consuming cannabis is now legally accepted under state law. As a result, seniors today — unlike in years past — often have safe, above-ground access to a variety of lab-tested strains of cannabis flower, as well as a range of infused cannabis products like tinctures and capsules — products that were rarely available in the past,” Armentano said.