Cannabis for Elders: A Precarious State

Those who stand to benefit most from medical marijuana have the hardest time getting it.
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A collection of antique medicine bottles, come containing ingredients such as opium and cannabis that were later outlawed (Reed Saxon/AP)

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. She 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.

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."

Every administrator with whom she spoke several facilities was under the impression that cannabis is illegal and they would lose their state license if they allowed it as an alternative symptom relief for clients.

While California remains at the forefront of the country's tumultuous relationship with the marijuana industry, medical marijuana usage is on the rise amongst 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 U.S. also comprises 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 of these baby 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 marijuana presents a list of challenges for seniors and the people who care for them.

In a state that enacted the first medical marijuana voter initiative in the U.S., the group that stands to perhaps benefit the most from medical marijuana has the hardest time gaining access to it.

For the marijuana advocates working to change perceptions of a substance classified as a Schedule 1 Drug, reaching the 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.

She's starting to see a change in administrator's willingness to discuss medical marijuana for their residents, albeit slowly. 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 several facilities was under the impression that cannabis is illegal and they would lose 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.

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 caretakers 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. Specific guidelines on medical marijuana do not yet exist.

"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 Michael Weston, spokesperson for the DSS.

"I think you're just beginning to see a realization in the senior community about how valuable cannabis is to seniors."

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 crossroad as many  receive federal funding through the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Presented by

Liana Aghajanian is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has also appeared on the BBC and in Foreign Policy, L.A Weekly, and Mental Floss.

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