Is Cannabis Use in Seniors on the Rise?
An unlikely sector of the population is playing a larger role than anticipated in the fight to end cannabis prohibition. Sharon Letts tells us how senior citizens have come out of the closet in legal and illegal states to sign up for medical cannabis cards, demand good medicine via cannabis for aches and pains, and more.
Grandma self-medicating again? Relax, it’s just a plant!
Nineteen years after California became the first state allowing cannabis as medicine, 23 others have followed suit. Eight states now offer legal recreational weed, with 28 more now offering up both medical cannabis and decriminalization laws in the mix.
The common belief is seniors from the Boomer Generation, already familiar with using the plant recreationally, are most prominent members of the patient pool. But in the more conservative state of Florida, one senior is proving that theory wrong, and becoming an unlikely victor leading the fight to end prohibition in the process.
Should Grandma Partake in Pot?
Robert Platshorn served 30 years in federal prison for selling cannabis via a fleet of tuna fishing boats along Florida’s shores during the 1970s and ’80s. Released back into society in 2008 at the age of 64, Platshorn began a campaign to educate the elder population, creating “The Silver Tour,” a non-profit organization aimed at enlightening and educating the gray haired sect on good medicine across the country, using the less expensive platforms of social media, emails, radio, local television spots, and billboards.
One of his most successful campaigns—a video featuring two elderly ladies partaking for the first time—went viral on social media, changing public perceptions and inspiring knock-off clips of other seniors, even retired law enforcement officers, smoking weed for the first time.
During one Silver Tour event, more than 400 senior citizens made their way to the steps of Tallahassee’s City Hall in peaceful protest, to share their personal use of cannabis as medicine publicly. There were no arrests made.
Platshorn knows his demographic; he knows the elderly still read newspapers, watch local TV and listen to the radio. During Florida’s first attempt to legalize cannabis as medicine in the state, voters failed to pass legalization by a two percent margin.
After Platshorn’s campaign, by April 2015, the Sun Sentinel reported upwards of 84 per cent of registered voters approving of cannabis as medicine in the Sunshine State. By November 2016, Florida voted to accept the plant, allowing physicians to prescribe, and dispensaries to provide safe access to its seniors and the ailing in the state.
“When we started The Silver Tour five years ago, seniors in Florida would not even discuss the medical use of cannabis,” Platshorn says. “I’m happy to say, things have changed. Seniors are an easy sell, but no one was using the media to inform them. Using TV, radio, live shows, and billboards changed minds quickly.”
Healing in California
Since voting in Proposition 215 in 1996, which allowed Californians the right to medicate with cannabis, the Golden State now lists 12.6 per cent of its senior population as card-carrying medical cannabis patients, according to Americans for Safe Access, a national organization helping move weed transactions from the alley to legal storefronts.
The US Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports aches and pains a common malady among the aging population, with 47.5 million or 21.8 percent of seniors reporting some kind of disability—with arthritis or rheumatism topping the ailment list, and cancer now seen as part of old age.
Laguna Woods Village began as “Leisure World,” an upscale, gated retirement village in conservative Orange County just south of Los Angeles. Today, it’s an incorporated city hosting more than 18,000 residents, with more than 500 cannabis patients, comprising The Laguna Woods Medical Cannabis Club.
They are “a non-profit for the purpose of educating, supporting, and informing Laguna Woods Village residents about the uses and issues for medical cannabis and to provide a forum where new patients, their families, and other interested residents can discuss their illnesses and the benefits of medical cannabis treatment in a safe environment,” says their mission statement.
Members learn about the medicinal benefits of the plant via workshops, lectures, and the sharing of what are commonly referred to as “anecdotal stories” via word of mouth.
On the evening of its monthly meeting, more than 150 club members, residents, and newbies fill up one of the larger meeting rooms within the community. Tables are set up with literature of the medical efficacy of the plant, books to read, and medicating implements donated for the evening raffle.
The meeting is called to order by club executive director and founder, Lonnie Painter, a Laguna Beach transplant, artist, retired carpenter, therapist, and past owner of the popular Café Zoolu in the upscale beach town on the coast. He’s worn many hats in his lifetime, but currently he’s helping to change the way seniors think about the plant.
“Our membership is growing,” Painter says of the residents quickly filling up the large hall. “We need to find a bigger meeting room,” he adds with a laugh.
Within the largely conservative populace of Orange County, some residents were reluctant to comment on the record. However, one member in her 80s says that once she started using cannabis, the first pills to go from her medicine cabinet were painkillers and sleeping pills. When asked what else she was learning, she says, “I’m going to try that strong oil. I heard it will put my diabetes into remission.”
Eat Five Leaves and Call Me in the Morning
Sixty-seven-year-old Susan Williams (name has been changed by her request) is a retired public relations professional from Northern California. Gardening is her passion, as well as her husband’s, with the couple growing and canning up to 90 per cent of their own food each year.
As with many active seniors, Williams says that after decades of toiling in the garden, she is suffering from the effects of osteoarthritis—mainly in her hands and the back of her hip.
“It was actually a grower friend who suggested I try cannabis. I then checked with my doctor and he said it wouldn’t hurt me,” she says.
Williams chooses to medicate by eating raw leaves, harvesting them herself for optimal effect; namely to treat inflammation that leads to swelling and subsequent pain.
“I was given a Sour Diesel plant and started eating the midsized leaves just off the bush,” Williams explains. “I would eat up to 10 leaves a day, and felt a noticeable difference in about a week, and continued eating the leaves until it was time to harvest the plant.”
She also made an alcohol-based tincture using the trim—or leaves and small stems—taking three droppers-full at a time, but did not feel it was as effective as consuming the fresh, green leaves.
“I have told many of my friends about ingesting raw cannabis, and recommend that if they want to do this they should get a California 215 license so they don't get in trouble,” Williams says.
The stigma of cannabis, she added, is what holds most people back from experiencing the medicinal benefits of the plant. Availability is also an issue, as patients who juice are often networking for leaves from several sources, then freezing overages for later use.
The silver-haired Williams’s hands are slightly crooked and worn from years of work in the garden, but they no longer ache with pain.
“If you asked me a year ago if I would have tried this remedy, I would have laughed at you,” Williams muses. “Now, I'm telling my friends.”
Good Medicine vs. Bad Drug
One fact that opens up a big can of weed worms in treating senior ailments is that the US government holds a patent on cannabinoids (CBD), one of the medicinal compounds of the plant. The patent, in effect since 1993, directly contradicts the government’s stance that cannabis is not medicine—along with its refusal to remove the plant from the Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) Schedule 1, where it currently sits alongside heroin.
Within the patent is a list of benefits, stating that cannabinoids have antioxidant properties, useful in the treatment and “prophylaxis of a wide variety of oxidation-associated diseases, such as ischemic, age-related, inflammatory, and autoimmune diseases.”
The patent goes on to state the plant’s application as a neuroprotectant, with the ability to limit neurological damage following stroke and trauma, or in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and HIV dementia.
Primrose Engaged Living is a private nursing home located just north of San Francisco in Santa Rosa, which specializes in dementia, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. Patients retain their own physicians, and if they and their families are open to cannabis use, it’s allowed.
The home is not unlike a five-star hotel, with gated grounds and gardens allowing its residents freedom to be outside—an option not found in many homes where those with dementia live.
Dan O’Brien, RN, oversees the care of the home’s patients, including a handful of residents whose families and doctors are on board in treating their symptoms via the ingestion of cannabis-infused treats.
Dementia, as defined in the National Library of Medicine’s site, has a varying group of symptoms, whereas Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are diagnosed diseases. None of the maladies are curable; all present with a slow deterioration of motor skills and bodily functions, including language difficulty, agitation, inappropriate behavior, deteriorating spatial skills, poor judgment, and diminished capacity to problem solve, maintain attention, plan, or organize.
“Dementia patients don’t really like to take pills,” O’Brien explains. “It’s easier for them to eat a piece of candy.”
On the evening of my visit I observed a patient finish up her dinner before being given one square of chocolate dosed with 15 mg. of THC activated cannabis.
Alzheimer patients comprise two-thirds of the home’s population, but O’Brien added that cannabis is given as a last resort, replacing or given in addition to other mind-altering prescription meds intended to calm agitated patients.
In this particular patient’s case, the cannabis works with great success, and O’Brien reports that the patients dosed with cannabis remain alert, are less agitated, and able to sleep through the night. Other symptoms reported to be quelled are the tremors associated with Parkinson’s and anxiety disorders.
The process of getting cannabis to its patients can be challenging, for not only does the family have to be willing to use this treatment, the patient’s doctor needs to be on board. This is something cannabis patients should think about when drawing up a care plan while they are still able to do so.
Stigma vs. Truth
Many senior citizen patients returning to cannabis as medicine had used it recreationally years prior, then left it behind in their college days, says registered nurse Lanny Swerdlow.
“Of all the reasons for stopping, not one was for negative reasons against the herb,” Swerdlow says. “All of them stopped due to the stigma that came with it when a job or kids came into play, or they just didn’t think they should use it any longer.”
The American Nurses Association published a statement in 2008, supporting patients’ “safe access to therapeutic marijuana.” At the top of the letter, which originated from the Congress on Nursing Practice and Economics, it states that “‘Marijuana’ (cannabis) has been used medicinally for centuries. It has been shown to be effective in treating a wide range of symptoms in a variety of conditions.”
Caregiving with cannabis began in the early 1980s with hospice workers helping AIDS patients. Studies on pain management using cannabis were done at that time at the University of California in San Francisco.
Findings included upwards of 80 per cent reduction in pain by merely smoking the flower, in addition to using prescription pain meds. Other anecdotal stories demonstrate that using a stronger oil or tincture does away with the need to supplement with prescription meds altogether.
As legalization allows more access, seniors are the fastest growing demographic utilizing cannabis as medicine in the US today, leading many to reconsider the question, “Should Grandma smoke pot?”