Grandma's Getting High: Pot Replaces Pain Pills for Relief From Cancer, Neuropathy and Other Diseases

Marijuana has a brand new market, and no, it's not the upcoming class of high school students hanging out in the 7-Eleven parking lot. Contrary to popular stereotypes, and according to a recent study of 47,140 people over the age of 50, "The prevalence of past-year cannabis use among adults aged 50+ increased significantly from 2006/07 to 2012/13, with a 57.8% relative increase for adults aged 50–64... and a 250% relative increase for those aged 65+."

Unlike most teenagers, these adults are not necessarily using pot to get high. Many elderly patients, buoyed by extensive evidence of marijuana's effects on chronic diseases like neuropathy, epilepsy, Parkinson's, and cancer, are turning away from morphine and percocet and toward something a lot more natural, but a little less legal: cannabis. While marijuana is banned at the federal level, 29 states including New York and the District of Columbia have approved it for medical use.

For 98-year-old Ruth Brunn—who had never tried pot before—marijuana was the only thing that brought her relief from the intense, stabbing pains in her shoulders. As she told the New York Times, “I don’t feel high or stoned...All I know is I feel better when I take this.” 

Brunn's nursing home, Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx, is starting a program to help residents access medical marijuana as an alternative to prescription drugs. They'll get around legal hurdles by allowing the residents to buy it from a dispensary, but require that they administer it themselves and store in their rooms in locked boxes. The driving force behind the program is Daniel Reingold, the president and chief executive of the nursing home's parent company, Riverspring Health. Reingold's own father used cannabis to cope with cancer.

The trend is prevalent across the country.  A retirement community in Walnut Creek, CA started a marijuana education and support club that grew to 530 members and had to change meeting rooms multiple times to meet the demand. As Anita Mataraso, 72, a program director at Rossmoor Walnut Creek explained, "I would be in a lot worse shape if I wasn’t using cannabis, both physically and mentally.” 

There are some doctors who worry that the current evidence is not enough and that marijuana use could cause falls, dizziness and other unintended consequences for older people, just as any other pain medicine would. Thomas Strouse, a psychiatrist and palliative care doctor at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that in his view, "There is no evidence that it is particularly helpful to older people, and some reason that it could be harmful,”

On the other hand, as the Times points out, "for some people, it is a last resort when nothing else helps." 

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