Use of Medical Marijuana Growing Among Seniors

With increasing concerns about prescription pain medication abuse and overuse, many older Americans are turning to medical marijuana as an alternative source of relief from chronic pain and other symptoms of illness.  The elderly can be vulnerable to addiction and with nearly 12 million medicare patients in the United States receiving at least one prescription for opioid painkillers in 2015, the concern over abuse appears justified.

Seniors are the fastest growing segment of society and as a result, public health care costs are soaring.   According to recent research from the University of Georgia,  medical marijuana may offer seniors a means to curb their use of opioid drugs while lowering spending on prescription medications.  The study found that medical marijuana saved about $165 million in 2013 and if legalized across the country would have saved $470 million.  The projected savings represents only a small percentage of the overall budget, however, medical marijuana may be an alternative worth considering.  Right now, medical marijuana costs are paid out of pocket by the patient but if cannabis does become declassified, many believe it would be cheaper than other drugs and result in a significant cost savings. 

Although still a Schedule 1 drug, marijuana has been approved in many states across the U.S. for medical use.  And seniors are increasingly using cannabis when arthritis or neuropathy pain medications no longer help alleviate symptoms.   Some researchers suggest the growing use of marijuana among older adults is also in due in part to a more relaxed attitude among aging baby boomers about cannabis use in addition to changes in the law and within the medical community. 

Marijuana may have medical or health benefits that include treating chronic pain, nausea caused by chemotherapy cancer treatment or smoothing out movement disorders in conditions such as Multiple Sclerosis or Parkinson’s Disease but, like any drug, it can have side effects.  Because of the rapid increase in the use of medical marijuana as a result of recent policy changes,  there is a lack of conclusive evidence regarding the short or long term benefit or harms of cannabis use. 

There are no widely accepted standards to help guide the safer use of marijuana and older adults, who can be more sensitive to medications, may risk falls or confusion.  Until recently, nursing homes have not wanted to address cannabis use among residents, fearful of the legal implications or losing federal funding.  But according to a recent report in the New York Times,  the Hebrew Home in Riverdale has developed a new program to help it’s residents use medical marijuana to treat illness.   Nursing home residents may purchase cannabis from a dispensary and keep it locked up in their room to be taken themselves. 

To date, 28 states plus the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana use and eight states have also legalized cannabis for recreational use.  According to a study on the health effects of cannabis published in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 22.2 million Americans nationwide (over the age of 12) reported using cannabis within the past 30 days in a recent survey.   With all this collected data, it appears medical marijuana is here to stay and for older adults suffering pain of chronic illness, nausea from cancer treatment or nearing end-of-life, it may offer hope for some relief when all else fails.   To read more about the legalization of medical marijuana, visit the National Public Radio website by following this link