Blowing Smoke

The stigmas and stereotypes standing between seniors and medical marijuana

Nearly a quarter century ago, California became the first state to legalize the use of marijuana for medical use. This meant that people suffering from chronic pain or conditions such as epilepsy now had an alternative to traditional treatments with hit or miss results. But seniors were slower to seek out this treatment option. Some were too embarrassed to ask their doctors due to stigma and fear of judgment. Others simply didn’t know that it could be used to treat their symptoms.

Now the tides are turning for the “children of the 60s” and the generation of flower power and free love is slowly starting to embrace the idea of medical marijuana. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the rate of older adults (age 65 and up) turning to marijuana to relieve chronic pain and treat other medical concerns has jumped significantly in the last decade from 0.4 percent in 2006 and 2007 to nearly three percent in 2015 and 2016.

So what conditions might medical marijuana help seniors cope with? And what does the future hold for marijuana’s use in the medical field? 

Treatment for chronic conditions

According to some reports, there are upwards of 150 different chemicals found naturally in marijuana (though some more conservative estimates report closer to 70 chemicals). Each one has varying effects on the human body. Depending on the treatment, medical marijuana use can pinpoint some of these chemicals to produce a desired result or can involve all of them.

Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease that causes the loss of memory and cognitive thinking skills. Though much is still not understood about the causes and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, it is thought that beta-amyloid proteins are likely the cause. Several studies have published promising results that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and other chemicals found in marijuana can be effective in slowing the production of beta-amyloid proteins.

Marijuana is not used to treat the cancer itself, but it has proven effective in alleviating nausea caused by chemotherapy treatments. This FDA-approved prescription pill currently uses a man-made, synthetic form of THC.

Chronic pain
Chronic pain can be caused be a wide variety of conditions. Chronic pain management remains the top reason people turn to medical marijuana, with more than 60 percent of medical marijuana users depending on it to manage chronic pain, according to a 2017 study.

Stopping the stigma  

The first step in stopping the stigma and normalizing the use of marijuana as a medical treatment is simply more scientific research. But in a classic catch 22, the general public is still suspicious of marijuana because it is classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as an addictive Schedule I drug (putting it on par with heroin, LSD, and ecstasy). At the same time, the dozens of attempts that have been made to downgrade marijuana to a Schedule II or Schedule III drug (which would allow for fewer restrictions on research) have been met with public and governmental resistance due in part to those same skeptical public opinions.

However, for seniors looking to relieve their chronic pain, there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel. In 2016, the DEA agreed to lift restriction on the availability of marijuana to researchers and drug companies. For many, this is an encouraging step in the normalization of medical marijuana.