As the senior population ages and many enter assisted living facilities, access to medical marijuana only becomes more difficult. Those in nursing facilities could use medical marijuana to relieve the inevitable symptoms of aging such as insomnia, reduced appetite, pain, and reduced energy among others instead of using pills that often have harmful side effects. The reasons for lack of access are many, but there may be hope in dealing with some of the obstacles.
According to new report released by the Arizona Department of Health Services, of the state’s 22,200 legal medical marijuana users, 51 to 81-year-olds represent more than 35 percent of patients and over half are older than 41. Arizona’s director of the Department of Health Services Will Humble told the Arizona Republic that this shift is largely because people tend to develop more debilitating medical conditions as they age.
This larger number of older medical marijuana patients (and potential patients) raises many questions and challenges. Aside from dispensaries being forced to close due to federal crackdowns, nursing homes typically receive federal funds and are thus forbidden by law to allow cannabis on the premises, which also applies to hospitals and hospice care facilities. Furthermore, seniors often don’t know where to go or how to get it even if they want to. For those entering these facilities who are already medical marijuana patients, lack of access only makes matters worse.
While assisted living facilities are normally highly controlled – where everything entering the facility must be reviewed by staff and doctors – that’s not to say illegal “sneaking in” of marijuana doesn’t occur. However, facilities risk loss of federal funding and losing licenses by doing so.
Despite the lack of easy answers for legalizing medical marijuana for use in medical facilities and elsewhere, a number of movements are attempting to spread awareness and encourage activism among the senior community. One such movement is The Silver Tour, which aims to teach seniors about the benefits of medical marijuana and how to get involved, particularly at venues where seniors gather in large groups such as at senior living centers, religious centers, retirement homes, and hospices. Another such effort is the Wo/Men's Alliance for Medical Marijuana (WAMM), a collective of patients and caregivers based in Santa Cruz, California. WAMM provides education and outreach, particularly to seniors and the sick and dying. The collective also offers medical marijuana donations to seriously ill patients with a doctor's recommendation.
On a more basic level, smoking is difficult in a health care facility even if access is possible. Fortunately there are many healthier and more effective ways to use medical marijuana, such as topical creams and vaporizers. Vaporizers in particular are growing in popularity and could reduce the need for pills in treatment facilities. These smokeless delivery systems eliminate toxins so only the active ingredients are inhaled. A supporting study conducted by UCSF showed that patients could take lower amounts of sustained release morphine or oxycodone along with vaporized cannabis and experience more chronic pain relief than with standard doses of opiates alone.
As more seniors become educated about the benefits of medical marijuana, pressure for legalization will only grow. Access to medical marijuana in nursing homes and other healthcare facilities serves a part of the population that’s most in need, and awareness, education, activism, and research will help make it happen.