Elderly People Are Ditching Meds For Marijuana

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter

Seniors are increasingly turning to marijuana to treat chronic pain and other debilitating conditions, even replacing existing prescription pills with weed.

The substance is often the only thing older Americans say works for treating their conditions and the general aches that come with aging. The number of seniors who reported using weed in the past year increased by roughly 250 percent between 2006 and 2013. Seniors report noticing stronger effects from treatment with marijuana, some replacing morphine with pot, and generally experience fewer side effects than from traditional medication, reports The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Some states with legalized medical marijuana already have policies in place allowing use by seniors in nursing homes and retirement communities like Washington, but barriers to access remain for individuals 65 years and older in states throughout the country.

A nursing home in New York City recently started letting residents use marijuana as part of their treatment, but not under the supervision of medical staff. They can buy their own supply from dispensaries and must keep the product in a lock box, to comply with federal regulations. In many cases the residents are using oil extracted from marijuana put into a pill form, which does not deliver the psychoactive elements that give smokers a traditional high.

“I don’t feel high or stoned,” Ruth Brunn, a 98-year-old resident at Hebrew Home at Riverdale in New York City, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “All I know is I feel better when I take this.”

Medical marijuana is legal in 28 states and Washington, D.C., where it is also legal for recreational use. Voters in Maine, Nevada, California and Massachusetts all approved measures to legalize marijuana for recreational use on Election Day. Despite greater access to pot, seniors can still have a tough time getting their hands on it. A majority of nursing homes will not openly endorse using marijuana, which remains illegal at the federal level, and many doctors fear there is not enough research to justify its use. (RELATED: Seniors Are Drowning In A Flood Of Prescription Pills)

“This is a target demographic that may have their access limited, if not cut off altogether, simply because they reside in a facility,” Paul Armentano, deputy director of marijuana advocacy group NORML, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “It is a problem that may infringe on their quality of life.”

Access to weed can often lead seniors to ditch or substantially lower their use of prescription medications such as opiate based painkillers, which are highly addictive. It also provides a solution for seniors who have not been able to find effective treatment for their conditions. Mounting medical research is showing marijuana extracts can aid treatment for conditions including cancer, glaucoma, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, muscle spasms, epilepsy, human immunodeficiency virus and Crohn’s disease.

Doctors still urge caution, noting medication dosages often need to be adjusted based off the age of the individual.

“Older people can be more sensitive to medicine,” Dr. Igor Grant, with the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s possible a dose safe for a 40-year-old may not be in an 80-year-old.”

Marijuana’s designation as a Schedule I drug means federally approved and funded research is extremely difficult to attain. Activists argue this designation is leaving medical professionals and the larger public in the dark on the repercussions of using the substance, something they charge is irresponsible given the wide availability of marijuana across the country.

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