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Why the Elderly Should Get Marijuana

Elders are the fastest growing population of medical cannabis users in the U.S, but questions have arisen over the use of the medicine within assisted living facilities.
 
 
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"This article was made possible by the MetLife Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a project of the Gerontological Society of America and New America Media."

Those who stand to benefit most from medical marijuana have the hardest time getting it. 

Margo Bauer was desperate. Dealing with chronic nausea and frequent bouts of vomiting—both attributed to her multiple sclerosis—the retired nurse was constantly exhausted and in pain. That was, until she attended an informational meeting where she was introduced to medical marijuana.

Under California's Medical Marijuana Program, she received a medical marijuana card and now legally grows her own plant at a Southern California assisted living facility where she lives with her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer's. 

Bauer smokes a rolled joint occasionally, which she says keeps her nausea at bay, and her pain lifted to the point that she joined an all-female synchronized swimming team, the Aquadettes.

Medical Pot Advocate at 75

Bauer, now 75, has also become an outspoken advocate for medical marijuana use among seniors and was instrumental in starting a collective at her assisted living facility.

"I carry a little container with a rolled cigarette," she said, "and if I have nausea I know that it is because I haven't taken enough pot."

While California remains at the forefront of the country's tumultuous relationship with the marijuana industry, medical marijuana usage is on the rise among seniors like Bauer.

Ailments ranging from chemotherapy side effects, arthritis, glaucoma, chronic pain and even malnutrition are being treated with cannabis, a promising alternative for seniors, who are increasingly susceptible to the dangerous side effects and growing dependency of multiple prescription medications. 

The fastest growing population in the United States, elders also comprise a significant portion of medical marijuana users, amounting to as much as 50 percent, according to Kris Hermes of  Americans for Safe Access, the nation's largest member-based medical marijuana advocate group.

But as many aging boomers move into assisted living facilities, questions arise on the use of medical marijuana behind their doors. Muddied by its illegal status at the federal level, social stigma and often-hesitant attitudes of administrators--who in some cases fear losing funding for allowing a controlled substance on their property—medical cannabis presents a list of challenges for seniors and the people who care for them.

Care Homes Fear Losing Federal Funds

For the marijuana advocates working to change perceptions of a substance classified as a Schedule 1 Drug, reaching seniors in assisted living facilities has been an ongoing, lengthy struggle.
 

Sue Taylor, the senior outreach coordinator for Harborside Health Center in Oakland, Calif., the largest marijuana dispensary in the country and subject of several federal lawsuits, had difficulties with assisted living facilities and nursing homes for years.

"They wouldn't let me in, because they were afraid of losing funding and getting put out of the building for even smoking," she said.

After several failed attempts, she changed her approach and teamed up with local organizations while meeting seniors at health fairs. She now arranges tours of Harborside for seniors and administrators, giving them a firsthand glimpse of the dispensary to answer questions and quell misconceptions.

The mother of three and former educator thinks a major part of why her message has been effective has to do with her approach.

"I'm harmless. I don't walk around with weed leaves on my shirt and weed earrings," she said. "I want cannabis to take its rightful place as a spiritual component and medicine."

Taylor's initial experience with administrators is echoed by other medical marijuana advocates.
According to a Los Angeles-based marijuana advocate, who wished to remain anonymous, every administrator with whom she spoke at several facilities was under the impression that cannabis is illegal. They feared losing their state license, if they allowed it as an alternative symptom relief for clients.

Most simply refused to discuss medical cannabis past this initial misconception, she said.