Stay Connected

It’s well known that cannabis is gaining prevalence and popularity in older adults and seniors.

Data from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that from 2002 to 2014, marijuana use among people aged 55-64 rose a whopping 455%, and for people 65 + their use of weed grew 333%. 

Comparatively, 18-25year old’s cannabis use rose by only 13% during the same period.

Wow.

The numbers suggest that cannabis use among older adults is on a serious UPSWING. 

Why are seniors using cannabis in growing numbers?

Although the FDA has not approved medical marijuana as a proper medical treatment – mainly due to lack of clinical trials up to this point – this does not mean that the plant itself doesn’t have medical benefits, especially for seniors. 

Here’s what studies are showing. 

Cannabis is a hopeful alternative for seniors amid the opioid crisis

The number of seniors receiving opioid prescriptions increased nine times between 1996 to 2010 according to Psychiatric Times.

They discovered that 35% of patients aged 50 years and older with chronic pain reported misuse of their opioid prescriptions, with the hospitalization rate for geriatric misuse of opioids quadrupling in the past 20 years.

But, with medical cannabis accessibility, opioid use drops in seniors.

study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found opioid prescriptions for Medicare part D recipients dropped 14% after a state legalized medical marijuana.

Another longitudinal analysis of Medicare Part D published last year found that prescriptions filled for all opioids decreased by 2.11 million daily doses per year from an average of 23.08 million daily doses per year when a state instituted any medical cannabis law. 

And that prescriptions for all opioids decreased by 3.742 million daily doses per year when medical cannabis dispensaries opened.

W. David Bradford, Ph.D., one of the authors of the study says, “If you’re interested in giving people options for pain management that don’t bring the particular risks that opiates do, states should contemplate turning on dispensary-based cannabis policies.”

Legalizing cannabis may be one powerful way to encourage lower prescription opioid use in seniors and serve as a harm reduction agent in the opioid crisis.

Prescription drug use falls in states with medical marijuana laws

A study on polypharmacy – the use of multiple drugs to treat a single condition, or the simultaneous use of multiple drugs for one or more conditions – published in The Journals of Gerontology reveals that prescription medication use among older adults in the U.S. has increased dramatically from 1988 to 2010. Use of more than 5 medications has tripled to nearly 40%.

The study also revealed that older adults on multiple medications are a more vulnerable group, with worse health conditions overall as compared with older people who use fewer medications.

Medical cannabis for seniors has been shown as a healthier alternative to the overuse of prescription drugs. 

For example, a 2016 study found that the use of prescription drugs under Medicare Part D – for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative, for example, depression, anxiety, pain, and other chronic issues – FELL SIGNIFICANTLY once a medical marijuana law was implemented.

The challenges seniors face when choosing to use cannabis

A new study, ‘Qualitative Analysis of Cannabis Use Among Older Adults in Colorado’ – the first statewide investigation of cannabis use among seniors – published in May in both The Gerontologist and the journal Drugs & Aging set out to specifically look at how older Americans use cannabis and the outcomes they experience.

The study was conducted by the University of Colorado, along with the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, the Eastern Colorado VA Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center, and the University of Iowa College of Public Health and College of Pharmacy.

Hillary Lum, MD, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine identified five major themes for seniors and cannabis use in the study: 

  1. There is a lack of research and education about cannabis
  2. There is a lack of provider communication about cannabis.
  3. There is a lack of access to medical cannabis.
  4. A lack of outcome information about cannabis use.
  5. Overall older people felt hesitant to discuss cannabis with their doctors.

Lum said their reluctance to discuss cannabis with their doctors “could be driven by feeling self-conscious about asking a doctor for cannabis” adding this, “points to a failure of communication between health care providers and their patients.” 

This hesitation to discuss cannabis with their doctors resulted in seniors paying more money for recreational cannabis, rather than paying a lesser amount for medicinal cannabis. 

In many states where recreational and medical marijuana are legalized, the cannabis for sale is the same, but when purchasing cannabis with a medical marijuana card they can often receive lower pricing due to its lower tax rate so that the medicine is more affordable to those who need it most. 

Additionally, some people said their doctors were either unable to provide the medical marijuana cards or were uninterested in their cannabis use or the effects of cannabis on their health and wellbeing. 

Lum said, “from a physician’s standpoint this study shows the need to talk to patients in a non-judgmental way about cannabis,” and that, “doctors should also educate themselves about the risks and benefits of cannabis and be able to communicate that effectively to patients.”Lum also added that some seniors were still negatively influenced by the anti-marijuana propaganda adverts, actually referring to the movie “reefer madness”.

In a subsequent interview with Leafly, Lum said the biggest surprise for her was that more than half of the seniors in the study use cannabis both medically and recreationally. 

“From a physician’s perspective it’s very easy for us to think that it’s black or white, one or the other, people are either just using for medical reasons or just using recreational,” she said. “So it’s an important takeaway for clinicians to ask about all reasons for use.”

Lum said seniors reported arthritis and back pain as the primary reason for using cannabis, along with anxiety and depression, “They felt that it was helping a lot of things…It helped their overall health and well-being, their quality of life, their day-to-day functioning and their pain. It seems to be something that those who choose to use it appreciate it.”

The future for seniors and cannabis use

In terms of the health and wellbeing of seniors, some doctors have expressed concerns about seniors self-medicating with weed.

But virtually everyone agrees the health consequences of excessive polypharmacy and opioid use in seniors is far worse. 

On the financial side, the availability of medical marijuana has a significant effect on prescribing patterns and spending in Medicare Part D. 

For example, nationally, the overall reductions in Medicare program and enrollee spending when states implemented medical marijuana laws were estimated to be $165.2 million per year in 2013. 

It seems the area in which seniors need the most support, is adequate cannabis education. 

Seniors need doctors and health care providers who are educated and up to date on medical cannabis as an alternative to prescriptions and opioids, and who are willing and openly discuss cannabis as an overall positive health and wellbeing option.