Even though medical marijuana has been legal in Canada for nearly 20 years, the new legalization of recreational cannabis in Canada has the medical and scientific research departments buzzing over its potential medical uses.

Because seniors are more susceptible to medical problems and diseases, much of the research is aimed at these baby boomers who are entering their golden years and choosing cannabis for everyday ailments at record rates.

Safety Questions Present: Does Cannabis Help or Harm Seniors?

If you want to find out the advantages and risks of a senior citizen using cannabis – keep reading. We explore what type of ailments can be treated by marijuana and shed light on big cannabis businesses that are targeting seniors.

Statistics show that cannabis use among senior citizens is on the rise. A study published by the Drug and Alcohol Dependence Journal found that nine percent of adults in the U.S. between the ages of 50 and 64 and three percent of those who were 65 or older reported using cannabis in 2015 and 2016.

Are you unimpressed? While these figures might not seem significant, the rate among the 50 to 64 age group, is twice the 4.5 percent that was reported a decade ago. This increase is amplified in the age group of 65+ whose reported usage has gone up sevenfold in ten years.

Another recent study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Ontario found that people who were older than 50 years who reported using cannabis shot up eight times more than a decade ago. Among the various states in the U.S. that have legalized cannabis such as Colorado, Washington State, Nevada, Oregon, and California – seniors make up nearly a quarter of all cannabis sales according to the Brightfield Group.

Risks Associated with Cannabis for Seniors

Rand Teed, a member of the Health Canada coalition, said that the two major risks of cannabis for seniors are the interference with other medications and falls due to impairment.

Teed points out that studies need to be done in order to understand the interaction between cannabis and other medications, but it is already known that cannabis does limit the efficacy of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) – which are the most common type of antidepressants. He also expressed a concern that cannabis may also interfere with how effective opiate-based pain medications are because they also work on the body’s endocannabinoid system.

Health Canada has expressed its concerns over the interactions with antidepressants, as well as heartburn medications, antibiotics, and medications used to treat blood pressure. Apparently, these types of medications might compete with the enzymes in the liver that break down tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and causes the psychoactive effects.

Another risk associated with cannabis for seniors is that weed grown today is significantly more potent than marijuana from the 60s and 70s which can lead to heightened anxiety, and in extreme cases, delusions and hallucinations.

Possible Uses of Cannabis for Seniors

Cannabis is certainly gaining popularity among this ageing population, but the science is still coming in as to how beneficial it is and what the potential risks of cannabis use are. A conservative approach has been taken by many health practitioners until more information becomes available.

Currently, the College of Family Physicians of Canada recommends cannabis as a treatment option for the following four conditions:

  1. Neuropathic pain
  2. Palliative or end-of-life pain
  3. Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting
  4. Spasticity due to spinal cord injury or multiple sclerosis

Even though there are some stated risks of cannabis for seniors, there are also studies suggesting that cannabis holds much potential to improve the lives of seniors. Teed recommends that seniors choose a cannabis strain that is high in cannabidiol (CBD), which is the non-psychoactive ingredient found in cannabis, and low in THC.  Teed explains:

“There are several possible benefits from CBD, [such as] pain relief. There are some indicators that CBD is helpful for mood.”

Furthermore, preliminary research suggests that THC may have a negative effect on both memory and cognition, but CBD has not been associated with reduced cognition or memory impairment.

The American Cancer Society reports that a few studies have also found cannabis to be quite useful in the treatment of neuropathic pain, and in the treatment of the vomiting and nausea experienced by patients as a result of chemotherapy.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) in January 2017 reported that cannabis can be an effective treatment for chronic pain because it attaches to receptors in the body that doctors have identified as playing roles in pain control.

Obviously, there is the risk of a growing dependence on cannabis, but in comparison to the dangers of the development of tolerance and dependence on opioids, it’s a safer alternative to treat chronic pain with cannabis. Furthermore, there is no risk of deathly overdose from cannabis, such as with opiates, and medical marijuana is much cheaper than the cost of prescription drugs.

Seniors are starting to catch on to the benefits of cannabis use over prescription drug use, and a report by the journal Health Affairs found that prescriptions for painkillers and other drugs in the states where medical cannabis is legal dropped significantly.

An informative survey by the European Journal of Internal Medicine from March 2018, showed that 18 percent of the patients 65 or older who used cannabis for six months stopped or reduced their intake of opioids, and 93.7 percent of respondents found cannabis use improved their condition.

Arthritis is a very common ailment that comes up in the discussion about cannabis for seniors. In 2013, Health Canada found that out of all the Canadians over 50 years old who registered to purchase medical cannabis, most were taking it for severe arthritis or back pain.

How is Cannabis Use Marketed Towards Seniors

While the research on cannabis use among seniors is just now ramping up, companies are recognizing the benefits of marketing cannabis to the older populations.

Canopy Growth announced last October that they are conducting a six-month study that tracks and monitors the effects of medical marijuana in patients as an alternative to other pain medication.

Another licensed producer, Tilray, is also studying the effects of cannabis for seniors with a six-month study that pays attention to the effects of cannabis on sleep, the perception of pain, and quality of life in patients aged 50 and greater.

In Conclusion

Science is still emerging every day on the effects of cannabis for seniors.  Preliminary studies show that this plant may be an effective alternative to the highly addictive opioid medications used to treat pain.

For now, the best advice for patients in the golden years who want to explore the medicinal benefits of cannabis is to take it slow. Do your research, and try starting with cannabis strains that are high in CBD and low in THC.