More Older Americans Using Marijuana to Treat Pain, Other Conditions

01 April, 2019

Retirement communities like Laguna Woods Village in Southern California often plan activities for their older adult members.

One recent outing included eating a small lunch, playing bingo games...and buying their month's supply of marijuana.

"It's like the ultimate senior experience," said 76-year-old retiree Ron Atkin. He talked with Associated Press reporters in the back room of a marijuana store called Bud and Bloom in the California city of Santa Ana.

Most American states have legalized the use of medical marijuana. And 10 of them -- including California – permit people who are 21 and older to use the drug for non-medical purposes.

The federal government still bans the drug, even as acceptance increases across the country. The General Social Survey found last year that a record 61 percent of Americans support legalization of marijuana. It also found that Americans over the age of 65 are increasingly supportive.

Many industry officials say that older Americans make up the fastest-growing group of people buying marijuana products. Seniors use the drug to treat pain, sleeplessness and other conditions that can develop with old age.

Kelty Richardson is a registered nurse with the Holos Health clinic in Boulder, Colorado. The clinic provides medical examinations and sells doctor-recommended cannabis through its online store.

Richardson said, "I would say the average age of our customers is around 60, maybe even a little older."

Joseph Cohen, Holo Health's medical director, holds "Cannabis 101" classes at the nearby Balfour Senior Living community. The classes inform people about which kinds of the plant are best for easing arthritic pain and which are best for use as a sleep aid.

In this February 19, 2019 photo, Kay Nelson, left, and Bryan Grode, retried seniors from Laguna Woods Village, talk in the lobby of Bud and Bloom cannabis dispensary while waiting for free transportation to arrive in Santa Ana, California.
In this February 19, 2019 photo, Kay Nelson, left, and Bryan Grode, retried seniors from Laguna Woods Village, talk in the lobby of Bud and Bloom cannabis dispensary while waiting for free transportation to arrive in Santa Ana, California.

There have not been very many scientific studies that prove the helpfulness of marijuana for given problems. A 2017 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, did find evidence that the drug can treat continuing pain in adults. The study also noted that the lack of scientific information presents a risk to public health.

At Bud and Bloom in Santa Ana, winners of the bingo games took home special new marijuana devices called vape pens. But Ron Atkin comes to the store to buy chocolate and other food products made with cannabis. He uses the products to treat his painful spinal condition. He began doing so after other pain medicine stopped working for him.

Atkin noted that his doctors did not suggest he try medical marijuana. But they did not warn him against the drug, either.

Bud and Bloom sells everything from pills to drinks made with cannabis. It also sells more traditional marijuana plant materials, commonly called weed.

Adele Frascella, who is 70 years old, bought some sweets made with cannabis. She said they help ease her arthritic pain.

"I don't like to take an opioid," she said. She added that she used to smoke marijuana in her younger days.

"I used to do it when I was like 18, 19, 20," she said. "And then I had a baby, got married and stopped."

She started smoking it again a few years ago. But these days, like many other seniors, she prefers eating food products made with cannabis instead of smoking the drug.

Renee Lee is another senior who smoked marijuana as a young person. She got back into it more than 12 years ago. At that time, she had just gone through brain surgery and other major medical procedures. She said she was taking "10 [medications] a day, four times a day."

"And I wasn't getting any better," she added. So, she asked her doctors if she could try medical marijuana. They said go ahead. It ended her pain, Lee said.

In 2012, Lee created the Rossmoor Medical Marijuana Club at her costly San Francisco Bay Area retirement community. Today, her club has more than 1,000 members. It holds special events, including talks by doctors and nurses who support the use of cannabis.

Gary Small is a professor of psychiatry and aging at the University of California, Los Angeles. He said that people Lee's age — 65 and over — are the country's fastest-growing group in the marijuana-using population.

He said that more studies on the drug's effects on older people are needed. And he said that, while marijuana may improve quality of life by easing pain and other problems, careless use of the drug could be dangerous.

Cannabis use can come with risky side effects for older people, Small said. Too much cannabis can lead to memory problems and dizziness. And dizziness can lead to falls.

Dick Watts, who is 75, had to learn that lesson for himself. The retired New Jersey builder keeps a winter home at Laguna Woods Village. He began having sleeping problems in his early 70s. At a class he attended, he learned that marijuana might help. So, he got a candy bar made with cannabis. He immediately ate the whole thing.

"Man, that was nearly lethal," said Watts, laughing.

Now when he has trouble sleeping, he takes just a small piece of candy before bed. He said he wakes up in the morning with a clear head and good energy.

And, he is sure to keep the candy out of reach from his young grandchildren, he said.

I'm Dorothy Gundy.

And I'm Pete Musto.

John Rogers reported on this story for the Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

We want to hear from you. How common is marijuana use among older people in your country? Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

marijuanan. the dried leaves and flowers of the hemp plant that are smoked as a drug

ultimateadj. used to say that something or someone is the greatest or most extreme example of a particular type of thing or person

seniorn. an old person

cannabisn. a drug, such as marijuana or hashish, that comes from the hemp plant and is smoked illegally

customer(s) – n. someone who buys goods or services from a business

arthriticadj. of or relating to a disease that causes the joints of the body to become swollen and painful

spinaladj. of, relating to, or affecting the row of connected bones down the middle of the back

opioid n. a drug, such as morphine or codeine, that is made from the substance opium and that is used to reduce pain or cause sleep

dizzinessn. the state of feeling that you are turning around in circles and are going to fall even though you are standing still

lethaladj. causing or able to cause death