Are Seniors Turning to Cannabis?
Evidence suggests cannabis use is growing among America's elderly.
Posted March 26, 2019
Medical marijuana (or medical cannabis) has been used to bring relief to patients who suffer from a wide variety of symptoms for more than two decades. It has shown to be an effective treatment for individuals with specific forms of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and those wrestling with the most unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy. Some research has also found that cannabis can also reduce anxiety, alleviate chronic pain, serve as an anti-inflammatory, and be of use for dozens of other conditions. Research, however, is ongoing and it is still not clear if cannabis is more effective than other treatments at managing these issues.
Though cannabis is still regarded as a Schedule I drug at the federal level (which has made research into its potential benefits and dangers extremely cumbersome to scientists), many states have legalized its usage for medical purposes. California was the first state to do so by passing the Compassionate Use Act in 1996. Since then, more than 30 states have followed suit.
Legalization efforts have diminished some of the stigma surrounding cannabis, but they have by no means eliminated it. There continues to be some reluctance to fully legalize cannabis.
Who Supports Legalization?
Allowing the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes enjoys near-universal acceptance. A Quinnipiac poll conducted in March of this year found that 93 percent of Americans support legalizing medical cannabis. Only 5 percent opposed. For context, the same poll found that 5 percent believe the United States is doing “too much” to address gun violence.
Support for legalizing recreational cannabis is less strong, but it is growing. In fact, the percentage of Americans who support legalization versus the percentage of Americans who are opposed to legalization has inverted. Only 32 percent supported legalization in 2006, compared to 60 percent who opposed it. By 2017, 61 percent said they supported legalization and only 37 percent opposed it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the older a person is, the more likely it is that they will not support legalization. The aforementioned Quinnipiac poll found that 85 percent of those polled between the ages of 18 and 34 believe that cannabis should be legalized; 63 percent of those polled between the ages of 35 and 49 believe it should be legalized; 59 percent of those polled between the ages of 50 and 64 years old believe it should be legalized; and 44 percent of those polled over the age of 65 believe it should be legalized.
Statistics about usage strongly mirror the statistics about supporting legalization. The younger a person is, the more likely it is that they use cannabis. A survey conducted in July 2017, found that 18 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 said they use cannabis. This is compared to 10 percent, 8 percent, and 3 percent among Americans aged 30 to 49, aged 50 to 64, and aged 65 or older, respectively.
This should come as no surprise. However, what is surprising is that growth in cannabis usage is surging among seniors. A study published in the journal Drug & Alcohol Dependence last year found that, while the number of seniors using cannabis continues to be small when compared to the number of millennials using cannabis, it is rising and rising fast.
Why Are More Seniors Using Cannabis?
There seems to be two distinct reasons why cannabis’ usage is increasing among seniors. The first is cultural. For decades, individuals within the United States government claimed that cannabis was either a gateway drug or a vile poison in its own right. This anti-cannabis propaganda was often echoed in the media, despite many of these claims being specious. Even though the anti-cannabis campaigns of the past are the subject of ridicule today, they were highly effective at the time. (A detailed history of the efforts to demonize cannabis can be found in Martin Booth’s extremely well-researched book, Cannabis.)
This perception of cannabis in the media has clearly changed. Cannabis is now being celebrated as a wonder drug. This has, consequently, softened its image. Additionally, the medical community has become more open to the use of cannabis for its therapeutic effects. Consequently, some seniors who would have shunned its usage in the past are now trying cannabis.
This brings up the second reason for the growing appeal of cannabis among seniors: Its benefits tend to address many of the conditions that seniors face. These issues include joint paint, muscle spasms, anxiety, insomnia, and loss of appetite. Cannabis has also been shown to be an effective treatment for chronic pain.
Using cannabis as an analgesic may also have the additional benefit of reducing reliance on opioids. That opioids can be used to manage chronic pain is without question, but they are extremely addictive, and the possibility of opioid abuse is extremely high. Consequently, federal guidelines on prescribing opioids are changing and medical professionals are being urged to find alternatives when possible. Cannabis could be one such alternative for both seniors and the general public.
As attitudes regarding the use of cannabis change and as more seniors learn that many of the conditions with which they struggle can be treated with cannabis, it is likely that seniors will continue to turn to cannabis in higher numbers. However, before experimenting with cannabis in states where it is legal, seniors should first consult a medical professional.
Dr. Ahmad reports no conflict of interest. He is not a speaker, advisor or consultant and has no financial or commercial relationship with any bio-pharmaceutical entity whose product/device may have been mentioned in this article.