With the majority of states now allowing marijuana for medical purposes (and some recreational), more caregivers and their doctors are considering the use of cannabis in their care plans. As of 2021, 36 states have allowed marijuana for medical purposes, and 18 of those (plus the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico) have declassified the substance for recreational use for those 21 years and older.
With cannabis now available to as many as four in five Americans, the substance is now being eyed by doctors, caregivers and patients for use in their treatment plans. Should your senior loved one try medical marijuana? Is it legal where you are? What are the downsides or side effects?
With the recent legality in dozens of states, researchers are trying to catch up on answering these questions and more through studies.
Seniors going green
A study of older adults using cannabis by WebMD found seniors who used medical marijuana for chronic pain said it “reduced pain and decreased the need for opioid painkillers.” As many as nine out of 10 users had a positive experience with its use.
The use of opioids among Americans has been of increasing concern and focus in recent years. However, some doctors and pain management advocates believe there’s now an overactive response that could be cutting off vital pain medication to those who need it most. As both doctors and patients reexamine opioid use, the pain management benefits of medical marijuana could be a key tool in reducing its use.
For those undergoing cancer treatment, the use of medical marijuana can have another important benefit. Many successful forms of cancer treatment have the unfortunate side effect of appetite loss. Recent studies show the use of cannabis can be beneficial for diminishing these side effects and overcoming nausea for treatment. The decrease in nausea and vomiting and improvement to quality of life is a powerful benefit for cancer patients. One such study found the use of 5 mg twice daily could help patients maintain and gain weight during treatment.
Medical marijuana cards must be obtained through doctors and even online in some states. The cannabis itself is most often purchased through local dispensaries, and many states do allow patients to grow it themselves.
The substance is perhaps most widely used as an inhalant, but today the most popular form of consumption is orally through edibles, which range in dosage. It can be found in pill form or in candies, and some chefs have even begun creating gourmet cannabis-infused offerings.
Despite its growing popularity, cannabis use still faces a number of hurdles: Most insurance plans won’t cover medical marijuana because it is still federally illegal, and the legality also makes some users nervous. However, a recent bill to declassify medical marijuana as a prohibited substance at the federal level was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives this month, a possible sign the legal hurdles could be ending for the treatment.
Older adults should still consider possible side effects of cannabis and the appropriate dosage. Some users have reported disliking the feeling of being sleepy, for example. As with most new things, starting with a small dosage and adjusting is recommended. For others, the ability to reduce dependency on opioids or eat a full meal far outweighs any downsides.
The use of cannabis for treatment should always be discussed with a primary care physician. But for those struggling with managing pain or appetite, the new availability for medical marijuana could be a new way to alleviate pain of chronic conditions.