From pain and trouble sleeping to cancer and dementia, pot can be a godsend for seniors.

April Short, AlterNet

Sue Taylor, a retired Catholic school principal and grandmother from Oakland, California, was living in Atlanta, Georgia writing a parenting handbook when she got a phone call from her son that would disrupt her life.

“He told me, ‘Mom, I know how you can open up your metaphysical holistic center,’ which had been my goal,” Taylor said. Taylor had earned a degree in divinity in Atlanta and is now a metaphysical minister. “He said, ‘It will be supported by a cannabis dispensary.’”

“Cannabis dispensary?” Taylor asked him. “You talkin’ about that marijuana stuff?”

Yes, he was.

“My true thoughts were, ‘We put this child through Catholic school all his life... we paid for him to go to college… and he calls me and tells me he’s gonna sell weed?” Taylor said.

In a panic over what she thought was her son’s descent into drugs, Taylor scrambled to pack her belongings, rented out her house, and flew back to Oakland.

“I’m not gonna lose him to drugs,” she told herself.

When Taylor tells this story now, she laughs. Today she works as the senior outreach coordinator for Oakland’s enormous medical cannabis dispensary Harborside Health Center. Her job is to educate seniors who, like her, often think of marijuana as anything but a legitimate medicine. She sits on the Commission on Aging in Alameda County and visits retirement homes and senior groups. She also hosts luncheons and seminars to educate people about various cannabis medicine options. 

When she arrived in Oakland, Taylor’s son told her about the classes he’d been taking at Oaksterdam University, a cannabis trade school that teaches students to grow, sell and advocate for marijuana medicine. In Oakland, as in the rest of California, the use of cannabis for medical purposes is legal with a doctor’s recommendation. 

Taylor’s son showed her stacks of research on cannabis and introduced her to professionals in the cannabis industry—scientists, advocates, dispensary workers. She learned that no one has ever died from cannabis ingestion or overdose, and that hundreds of medical studies of the herb have proven its promising healing potentials. She learned that cannabis has been used for healing for thousands of years and that it has been successfully used by countless patients in California and beyond for decades to treat pain, nausea, inflammation and dozens of other symptoms. She also learned that it’s generally safer and more effective than synthetic pharmaceutical drugs, especially for the elderly—and it's much cheaper.

While the literature and statistics were compelling enough to convince her that her son wasn’t in trouble, nothing convinced her of its medicinal potentials more than the patients she met. She watched people who had serious, chronic illnesses like arthritis, joint pain, even cancer, as they were healed by cannabis.

“I have a particular friend who works at a dispensary down in San Jose who told me last June that her mom had cancer as big as a lemon in her left lung,” Taylor said. “Now she is cancer-free. CBD [cannabidiol] tablets did it.”

CBD is one of the many compounds in cannabis that interact with the human body via the endocannabinoid system. Unlike THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), it doesn’t give consumers the euphoric “high” feeling. Decades of severe government restrictions have effectively blocked clinical research on cannabis in the U.S., but there have been numerous reports of CBD tablets reversing cancer symptoms. AlterNet recently ran an article on a teen who beat terminal brain cancer using CBD medicine. Strains of cannabis high in CBD are also known to help with seizures, and in particular childhood epilepsy.

“The doctors from Kaiser started calling her about the [CBD] tablets,” Taylor said. “‘What were those tablets you gave your mom?’ they asked her. Now they send patients there [to the medical cannabis clinic] on the under. They’ll say ‘I’m sending you there but you didn't hear it from me.'"

Five years ago Taylor worked with Harborside’s executive director, Steve DeAngelo, to develop the senior outreach program—the first of its kind. Because if anyone can benefit from medical cannabis, she said, it’s seniors.

“The more and more I learned, this is what I found out: The seniors are in such bad health; they’re kind of miserable,” she said. “When they develop medical problems they are prescribed all these pharmaceuticals, which really knock them out, and they are left to die. And so number one my job and my compassion is to help them realize who they really are, and that it doesn't have to be that way.”  

She also hosts occasional tours of the Harborside facilities to show seniors that medical marijuana dispensaries aren’t all dark, dingy places surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by pit bulls. She also wants to show them the many options for ingesting cannabis. Reason TV created a mini documentary of one of Taylor's tours.

“Many people don’t know it’s not just smoked,” she said, noting that she herself has never smoked cannabis, but has used it in other, non-psychoactive forms. “You can eat it, you can turn it into vapor, and you can use it topically. It comes in creams and oils for muscle aches and joint issues, and it really works.”

Taylor also gives inspirational talks to seniors, reminding them that they deserve to live “from 50 to 90 in total bliss.”

“I tell them that’s their birthright,” she said. “If theres anything that interferes with that they need to look at it. The pharmaceutical drugs are usually interfering. And I say, ‘Don’t get off your pharmaceutical drugs, I’m not your doctor, you take them. But when you go to the doctor ask if there’s anything else you can do. Ask about this option.’”

Retirement Homes and Skilled Nursing Facilities

A big question Taylor has encountered in her outreach work is: How can seniors living in senior care facilities access cannabis medicine? Can caregivers legally transport cannabis to patients? Can they help them find a doctor who will recommend cannabis medicine? How does a person pick up a medical marijuana card if they can’t even sit up in bed?

The quick answer is that medical marijuana laws in California allow most caregivers to pick up, transport and deliver cannabis medicine to patients, as well as assist them in getting registered as marijuana patients.

A more detailed answer came to some senior care providers during a four-hour medical marijuana panel on April 25 at the Cardinal Point retirement community in Alameda. Taylor organized the event specifically for employees of RCFEs (residential care facilities for the elderly), who had the option to earn CEU (continuing education unit) credits for attending. Experts on the panel included Richard Lenson, a physician; James Anthony, an attorney; Timothy Anderson, a marijuana dispensary professional from Harborside; and Yvonne Baginski, a health educator from Born to Age. Each worked to dispel myths about cannabis and train the attendees in the necessary protocols.  

Sarah Shrader, a community liaison for the medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access (ASA), told the group of 25 senior care workers that when California Senate Bill 420 (SB420) was passed in 2003, it specifically defined “caregivers. Most retirement home workers and other senior care providers qualify as caregivers under the law.

Shrader explained that she became involved with ASA because she was a medical cannabis patient, using cannabis to mitigate her fibromyalgia. She tried 34 different medications and 30 different doctors before she found cannabis. It helped more than anything.

Most attendees appeared surprised to learn that they could legally provide cannabis to seniors in their care. They were also surprised to learn that, while doctors in California can’t give prescriptions for cannabis, they can legally discuss it as an alternative option, and even recommend it.

However, the stigma surrounding cannabis medicine is enough to keep many doctors from broaching the topic with patients.

Getting Doctors on Board

Anne Sanabria, who works as community relations director for Lakeside Park assisted living facility in Oakland, attended the panel in the hopes of learning about an alternative to pharmaceuticals. She said most members of her community, which caters solely to dementia patients, pop pills by the double digits.

“When I’m full, 70 people call me home, all of whom have dementia, all different types of dementia,” she said. “I want to find out alternatives to all of the different pharmaceuticals that are expensive, have side-effects and don’t really help the actual problem. That’s why I’m here.”

Sanabria said the panel taught her about the legal ins and outs of cannabis for seniors in care facilities, but said the biggest roadblock she sees is getting doctors on board.

“I do think the main problem, the big gray area, is the doctors,” she said. “We have got to get to the doctors and they need to tell their patients about this option. For example, if I’m a doctor, my patient who’s now 90 years old, who's been visiting me for 30 years, she listens to me. That doctor has got to be able to say ‘This is what I want you to try,’ and dispel the rumors about reefer madness.”

Richard Lenson presented a slideshow at the panel on the physiological effects of cannabis, and the potential medical benefits. He said that for years while he knew privately about cannabis’ and heard stories from friends about its healing effects, he shied away from speaking up about it to patients and others for fear of losing his job. He graduated from medical school in 1982 and worked at Kaiser Permanente for 24 years. Kaiser’s restrictive policies did not allow him to write recommendations for cannabis.

“I talked about it with some patients, but I didn't have the knowledge base I have now,” he said. “Now I think it might be a very powerful medication topically for many dermatologic conditions and possibly more.”

Lenson said he can understand why many physicians are timid to advocate for cannabis.

“They are interested in caring for the patient and their bottom line, and to step into the area of recommending medical cannabis may have their peers look at them with some disdain. They may be concerned about their status in the medical community.”

When Lenson retired he started volunteering at the medical marijuana dispensary Compassionate Health Options. He also spent some time in Oakland and Santa Rosa, interacting with patients and hearing their stories.

“I was amazed at the stories people shared,” he said. “People vowed it to be very helpful dealing with stress or anxiety or sleep disorders or chronic pain or menstrual symptoms….They said it was better than what was offered at the pharmacies.”

This prompted Lenson to speak publicly about medical cannabis. At the panel he told the room there is ample evidence cannabis relieves anxiety, depression and pain.

“If you have a product that helps with sleep, stress, confusion, pain—the elderly is where I’m going to send it,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem to be reaching that community.”

He told the room that he suspects one of the reasons doctors are slow to advocate for cannabis is the lack of research. Another reason, he says, is the fact that many doctors are compensated generously by pharmaceutical companies, and those pharmaceutical companies would be threatened by cannabis medicine.  

“The medical argument is you don't know what you’re giving the patient because cannabis is so complex, and it’s different for everyone, which is true,” he said. “So they believe a pill is better. But the pill they have for marijuana, Marinol, doesn’t work for many people because the different components in the plant interact with each other to create these positive effects. The pill just isolates one or two.”

Lenson also stressed the safety of cannabis. “The way to get injured from cannabis is having a very heavy package of it fall on you,” he said dryly.

He said the biggest issue for doctors is probably the lack of approved, national research on cannabis. Research in the U.S. has been blocked outside of the National Institute for Drug Abuse since the Controlled Substances Act classified cannabis as a Schedule I controlled substance with no known medical uses. However, stacks of international and private studies, as well as thousands of years of well-documented human experience prove otherwise.

Lenson said he was particularly interested in the work of Raphael Mechoulam, the Israeli research professor of medicinal chemistry. He is best known for isolating THC, the main active compound in cannabis. For decades he has investigated the ways human biochemistry interacts with cannabis and he has found it to help with various symptoms including bone production formation and brain function.

“I’d encourage people with chronic pain, insomnia, [gastrointestinal] disturbance, arthritis or depression to ask their medical doctors about cannabis,” Lenson said. “I’ve found that one of the greatest ways doctors learn is from their patients."