If current trends continue, in states where cannabis is legal, the next time you visit grandma at her senior’s community, instead of seeing a few steadfast cigarette smokers outside, you may notice more seniors gathering with a distinct whiff of pot wafting through the air. In some more progressive states like California, retirement homes are even providing shuttle services for their residents to boutique cannabis dispensaries. But just how many older adults are trying weed again (or for their first time) and what effect does Mary Jane have on seniors who may be taking other medications for chronic illness or pain?
According to a recent CNN Health report, using data from the National Health Survey on Drug Use and Health, cannabis use among older adults has risen seven-fold over the past decade. For the most part, these are not first time marijuana users; baby boomers who came of age in the 60s during the Woodstock era are now reaching an age when legalized cannabis may ease the aches and pains of older age and they are open to experimentation. Marijuana retailers are keenly aware of the interest their product holds for older adults and high-end dispensaries are popping up across North America, appealing to the discerning cannabis connoisseur with a healthy retirement portfolio.
Seniors using pot instead of stronger prescription drugs seems like a good idea based on the current opioid crisis facing the United States and Canada, but marijuana use has not been thoroughly studied among older adults, especially those with one or more chronic illness. When mixed with prescription drugs or alcohol, an elderly adult may put themselves at greater risk for stroke, drug interactions, falls resulting in injury, motor vehicle accidents or respiratory problems.
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that opioid prescriptions from Medicare part D (a benefit primarily for seniors) recipients dropped by 14 percent in states where medical marijuana was legalized. But while there has been plenty of media reporting on the dangers of cannabis use for young adults and their still-developing brains, little has been said about the possible health risks for older adults.
Seniors are a target market for cannabis retailers but there is very little information, even for physicians, about how older bodies will process the drug or how it interacts with common prescriptions for health problems like high blood pressure. A recent 5-year hospital study links recreational cannabis use with an increased risk for stroke.
More evidence and research is required to establish medical guidelines for seniors, and it can’t come quickly enough. But for now, careful monitoring and controlled dosing are the best bet for older patients considering using cannabis as an alternative treatment for their ailments. If blood pressure rates start to rise or other changes are noticed by a clinician or patients, it’s important not to rule out cannabis use as a possible cause.