"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 forHarborside 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.
Vague or Nonexistent Guidelines
California's Compassionate Use Act, passed by voters in 1996 and its 2004 amendment, Senate Bill 420 was written in part specifically about seniors and their caregivers operating within the confines of the law, however.
The initiative included health care facilities, residential care facilities for elders, hospices or home health agencies on a list of primary caregivers allowed to administer medical marijuana without legal ramifications.
But the procedures on marijuana's medical usage in California care facilities still remain vague and vary from agency to agency -- assisted living facilities fall under state jurisdiction, at the Department of Social Services (DSS) Community Care Licensing Division.
"There are no specific regulations to medical marijuana but there are specific regulations related to the use of prescription medicine and how medicine is distributed," said DSS spokesperson Michael Weston.
Nursing homes and hospices on the other hand, are regulated at a federal level by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, leaving them at a precarious legal crossroads because many receive federal funds through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The vague and often nonexistent guidelines, as well as the perceived legal implications of a patient's desire to use medical marijuana have caused problems.
Molly Davies, vice president of the Elder Abuse Prevention and Ombudsman Services at Wise and Healthy Aging in Los Angeles, said cases there involving medicinal cannabis in skilled nursing and assisted living facilities have increased. But many residents who use it are subject to eviction, despite having medical marijuana cards.
Davies said lack of regulatory oversight has left those interested in implementing medical marijuana in a trial phase, to figure out dosage and potentially harmful side effects without established guidelines.
Care Facilities Face Risks
Administrators are also facing myriad questions: Where will marijuana be stored? How do patients know how much to take, and who is going to administer it if they can't do it themselves? Since smoking isn't allowed in most assisted living facilities, how can medical marijuana be used, especially if it infringes on another patient's rights? Who will be able to get it for residents?
"We can't ask a facility staff member to go in and purchase on behalf of a resident, so what we recommend is finding a collective that will deliver if the individual is unable to purchase it on their own," Davies said. Stuck between maintaining the rights of residents and following regulatory guidelines, the nonprofit agency faces a conflict and, Davies added, cannot instruct facilities to violate federal law.
Joel S. Goldman, an attorney who exclusively represents California assisted living facilities in California, said he receives a call a month from a client with a medical marijuana question. Basically, he said his clients own their facilities, which gives them the final say on what they allow in them.
There's also the fact that the unregulated nature of marijuana circumvents established protocol for handling medications in assisted living facilities.
"The rules for storing medication, with respect to labeling, dosage, destruction of expired meds -- none of these normal rules really work very well when the medication is marijuana," Goldman said.
He suggests that facilities looking to accommodate their residents can request exceptions from the state’s social service department and ultimately implement more individual care plans. DSS spokesperson Weston, said the agency does consider requests for a regulatory exception, including those involving medical marijuana, "if the intent can be met by a proposed alternative," he said.
However, even when facilities incorporate medical marijuana in their programs, they're often staying as low key as possible to minimize the possibility of criminal sanctions.
Medical Marijuana Trailblazers
Harborside's founder and marijuana trailblazer Steve DeAngelo, whose focus has been connecting medical cannabis with seniors for the last few years, fielded refusals from every single laboratory he approached in the Bay Area to test cannabis. With two partners, he developed his own analytical lab, where every bud now passes through before being made available to patients, to ensure quality.
Despite the limitations that the unfettered nature of marijuana presents, such as communicating its medicinal benefits with resistant administrators, DeAngelo remains positive. He is hopeful that seniors will eventually take the helm to address the challenges.
Actually, the Silver Tour, a first of its kind nonprofit, was founded by Robert Platshorn, one of the biggest marijuana smugglers of the 1970s, who spent 30 years in federal prison. A national platform, the group has worked to educate U.S. seniors over the past three years about the medicinal values of cannabis.
"I think you're just beginning to see a realization in the senior community about how valuable cannabis is to seniors -- they themselves over the course of the next few years will be vocal and effective advocates for changing cannabis laws," DeAngelo said.
This story is adapted with permission from a story Liana Aghajanian wrote for the Atlantic.com through the Metlife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.