Medical Marijuana Could Aid Millions More of Older Adults, If Congress Would Only Act

Baby Boomers now represent 42% of the adult population in the United States, according to Pew Research. A whopping 72% of the people in this cohort “have one or more chronic diseases.” Combine Baby Boomers with those folks 70 years and up, and we’re faced with a formidable need for medical relief.

As civilization has advanced, we have made great progress in treating disease and reducing pain. But we have not gone far enough. Modern medicines and preventative measures are still coming up painfully short. As a result, as people age and their health deteriorates they often find themselves looking for alternative medicines and unconventional therapies to ease their various conditions and chronic pains.

Medical marijuana is helping to fill this gap. In fact, CBS News reports, “the 55-and-older crowd is now the fastest-growing demographic of pot users in the country.” While the number of seniors using cannabis has increased from 2.8 million to 4.3 million between 2013 and 2014–and for good reason.

The Benefits of Cannabis as We Age
The rise in cannabis use among older adults should come as no surprise given the growing evidence for the many medical benefits of marijuana. As studies show, medical marijuana provides much needed pain relief for many of those suffering from chronic diseases, as well as many other chronic conditions that afflict us as we age, including arthritis and neuropathy pain. Cannabis can even help people to sleep better, which is a common challenge as we get older.

What’s more, the data is daunting. As David Downs of the San Francisco Chronicle reports, “Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control…indicate that half of the country’s seniors have chronic pain, half have arthritis, half have insomnia, and 17 percent get migraine headaches, and that many seniors have more than one of these conditions,” Further, he adds, “All are conditions cannabis has been proved to address.”

Not only is medical marijuana providing extraordinary relief for a surprising variety of ailments, it also has fewer side effects than a great many traditional prescription drugs. Indeed, some prescription drugs can lead to other medical issues, including dependency and addiction. Cannabis, in direct contrast, is also proving to be a way to overcome addictions to other drugs, including opiates, morphine, heroin, and even alcohol. In fact, according to The New York Times, “Dr. Mark Wallace, chairman of the division of pain medicine in the department of anesthesia at the University of California, San Diego, said over the last five years he has used marijuana to help several hundred patients transition off opiates.”

One of the other benefits of cannabis is that while it helps to alleviate pain and suffering for a variety of conditions, patients also require fewer other medications (and often prefer marijuana as an alternative to other prescription drugs), making it both cheaper and easier to use—two paramount concerns for many older adults who frequently find it increasingly difficult to find work and get around. This, of course, could also result in significant cost savings for society as a whole. “Americans over-65 only account for 14 percent of the nation’s population,” reports CBS News, “but they use more than 30 percent of all prescription drugs, including some highly-addictive painkillers.”

Ben Pollara, who leads United for Care, explains, “You get older, you get sick, you start getting diseases, your bones stop working as well as they used to and you’re presented with this pharmacopoeia of different drugs that you have to take just to get through the day.” Pollara sees cannabis as an important part of the solution. “To the extent that seniors can use marijuana to supplement or replace any of those drugs,” he said, “I think is a good thing.”

Regardless of what the pharmaceutical companies or the federal government would like people to believe, in a surprising number of cases, according to a study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, cannabis is proving to be more effective than a number of current medications, including, sedatives, antidepressants, and opioids (which are also dangerously addictive), but also drugs prescribed for “chronic pain, mental health conditions, and gastrointestinal issues.”

The Federal Conundrum
A quick Google search reveals considerable scientific data highlighting the numerous benefits of cannabis for people in pain. In fact, the government’s own National Academy of Sciences recently released what the San Francisco Chronicle called, “the most comprehensive and authoritative review of medical marijuana studies to date.” And what did the Academy find? “Conclusive and substantial” evidence that cannabis and its derivatives work on chronic pain, nausea, muscle spasms and a host of other conditions.” And, yet, somehow, remarkably, the federal government continues to classify cannabis as a Schedule I drug. This, sadly, presents numerous roadblocks for the nation’s seniors.

Cannabis ResearchSeveral states, fortunately, have had the wisdom and foresight to make cannabis legal. Others, however, still lag behind. In fact, not only do some states still not allow medical marijuana at all, many others permit the use of cannabis for only a very limited set of specific medical conditions. This leaves millions of older folks unable to access the medical marijuana that science has shown can effectively treat their various ailments.

In other cases, even in states where medical marijuana is legal, the doctors themselves are failing to recommend cannabis because of fears about marijuana’s Schedule I status. Even when these doctors know about the science behind cannabis for the specific conditions their patients face, they are nevertheless reluctant to discuss an illegal drug. Fears of losing their medical license, or being arrested or sued usually outweigh concerns for the health of their patients. This too leaves millions of older folks unable to access the medicine they need.

Not surprisingly, seniors themselves can become an obstacle to their own best interests. After living through decades of the war on drugs and reefer madness propaganda, many seniors are highly skeptical if not downright antagonistic toward medical marijuana. Even when faced with leading medical marijuana research, deep-rooted beliefs about the dangers of “drugs,” and quaint ideas about the trustworthiness of the federal government can lead to a surprising hostility toward the notion of marijuana as medicine. And, sure enough, research in California shows that, among all other age groups, seniors (65+) are the least likely to try medical cannabis, even while they could benefit from it the most.

Nursing homes often present another obstacle to cannabis use. Even in states where medical marijuana is legal, even when seniors are able to gain a recommendation from a doctor on their own (or with the help of a friend or family member), they may still have problems taking cannabis if they are living in a nursing home. In many cases, for example, nurses will refuse to administer cannabis pills out of concern for safety and federal law.

Dr. Cheryl Phillips, senior vice president for LeadingAge, an organization that represents over 2,000 nursing homes, told The New York Times, “If residents are taking it, they are taking it undercover without the staff knowing so it’s not part of their care plan. I think that creates a safety problem.” Once again, this leaves millions of older folks unable to access the medicine they need.

Legal access to cannabis is not the only problem seniors face, however. Whether they rely on Social Security benefits, a pension, or a 401K, the vast majority of seniors live on fixed incomes and, therefore, are only able to afford the medications that are covered by their insurance. Yet, health insurance companies are notorious for finding devilish ways to deny coverage. The fact that marijuana is still classified as an illegal substance gives them an easy out. This too leaves millions of older folks unable to access the medicine they need.

All of these barriers and obstacles derive from one thing: The failure of the U.S. Congress to comply with the people’s will. The end result of their failure is that millions of older adults are made to needlessly suffer with dangerous side effects, life-threatening addictions, unbearable pain, and, in some cases, even premature death.

Cannabis has been clearly recognized as a powerful alternative with respect to supporting the health and well-being of a significant segment of America’s aging population. And, yet, the federal government continues to stand in the way. Isn’t it time that Americans of all ages rise up on behalf of our seniors and demand that Congress reschedule cannabis today?

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