For older adults exploring the new world of medical marijuana, age 65 seems to be a tipping point. Those under that age use the drug for medical purposes at largely the rates of other adults. Usage among people over 65 appears to drop significantly, though, perhaps because of the culture in which they came of age.
That’s the conclusion based on emerging data from this rapidly growing, but little-studied area of medicine. Today, half of the states now allow medical marijuana in some form and there are an estimated 1 million people using it.
In states that keep track of such demographics, medical marijuana usage drops around age 65 and decreases even more at age 70 and above. Those who work in the medical marijuana field say they aren’t surprised. But they think those numbers will change with the growing acceptance of medical marijuana in the country.
“Sixty-five and over is my age group,” said Sue Taylor, 69, who is set to open next year the nation’s first medical marijuana dispensary aimed at older patients, in Berkeley, Calif. “Most of them are afraid and won’t touch it. The reason is that they haven’t been educated about the benefits.”
A former Catholic school principal, Taylor has traveled extensively giving talks about the benefits of medical marijuana for older adults. Reducing dependence on prescription drugs is a big selling point, she said.
The marijuana saved her life because it made her eat. If you cannot eat, you cannot live.
— Palastine Tyson, sister of cancer victim
She also stresses that users don’t have to smoke the marijuana and that there isn’t a high associated with many forms of medical marijuana. Still, she said, reluctance is significant and many older Americans associate it with street drugs.
Older Patients Less Likely to Try Medical Marijuana
The limited research on the issue confirms that reluctance. A 2012 study by Public Health Institute researchers looked at California residents’ use of medical marijuana and showed that about 5 percent of those between 25 and 65 had tried it, but the number dropped to 2.2 percent for those over 65.
Similar usage rates are seen in Oregon, one of the few states that publicly releases age demographics in its medical marijuana program. When its figures are combined with Census estimates, this shows that about 3.2 percent of residents age 55 to 64 participate in the program. But that rate drops to 2.4 percent for those from 65 to 69 and to 1.4 percent for those from 70 to 74.
A large federal survey showed that there was a significant difference in attitudes about drug use for those born around 1950. In 2012, less than 20 percent of those born before 1948 had ever used marijuana or other illicit drugs. The number approached 48 percent for those born between 1948 and 1952 and went above 50 percent for those born after 1952.
“This cohort, particularly those born after 1950, had much higher rates of illicit drug use as teenagers and young adults than older cohorts. This generational shift in drug use is still evident in the most recent data,” the federal researchers said.
Advocates: Opinions Changing Fast
Medical marijuana advocates acknowledge that age may be an issue now, but they said things are changing fast. More states are approving programs. More people are signing up. And, as the industry matures, so will its ability to find new underserved markets.
“The jury is still out in terms of what industry-wide statistics will show as this becomes more established,” said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “Reducing the stigma will be a strong factor for people over the age of 65.”
Medical marijuana for older patients is an issue that researchers say begs more study. With less muscle mass and decreasing liver and kidney function, older people metabolize drugs differently than younger ones. Potential side effects of sedation or lightheadedness may be a mere distraction in a younger person, but could lead to bone-breaking falls for those who are older.
‘The Marijuana Saved Her Life’
Still, many of those who have tried medical marijuana offer compelling stories.
California resident Palastine Tyson, 87, offered the story of her sister, Julia Long, who was dying several years ago. Fighting lymphoma of the intestines, Long, who is eight years old than Tyson, was undergoing chemotherapy and radiation. She was not eating and lost 50 pounds.
Tyson had lived in the San Francisco area during the destructive height of HIV/AIDS and knew marijuana might help Long. She bought some off the street and came home and improvised a marijuana-infused tea because her sister did not smoke.
That first time, Long took three or four swallows of the tea. Nothing occurred right away. But within 30 minutes, she said she was hungry. It was the beginning of a remarkable turnaround, Tyson said. With the medical marijuana, her sister’s appetite returned, she gained weight and her strength improved.
Today, Long’s cancer is in remission.
“It didn’t cure her, but it did make her eat. The marijuana saved her life because it made her eat,” said Tyson, a mother of five and a retired postal worker. “If you cannot eat, you cannot live.”
Tyson says her age group does have definite concerns about drug use that may slow its acceptance of medical marijuana.
“Older people have a lot of problems with our thoughts about marijuana. We equate it with other bad drugs like hashish, heroin and crack,” she said. “That generation is just coming around to the notion that marijuana is OK.”
Willingness to Try
Retired professor and Montana lawmaker Bob Ream, 80, tried medical marijuana this summer following his diagnosis of stage four pancreatic cancer. Ream said some people his age may be unwilling to try medical marijuana, but he sees no reluctance among his fellow patients in the “chemo room.”
For him, sleep was the main issue. One time after his diagnosis, he went three days without sleep. He initially tried smoking medical marijuana, but then switched to the pill version. Combined with other medications prescribed by his doctor, Ream believes the medical marijuana has helped. “It’s been very important. When I have a good sleep, I have a good day,” he said.