Resources and ideas for reporting on older adults’ use of marijuana

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: THC Photos via Flickr

Photo: THC Photos via Flickr

More than two-thirds of states (plus the District of Columbia and several territories) have legalized marijuana for medical or recreational use.

But when it comes to its use by older adults, there are just as many questions as answers.

Cannabis use among the older demographic is on the rise, as this study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found. Use jumped from 2.4% to 4.2% among those 65 and older between 2015 and 2018, a 75% relative increase. While that may not seem like a lot, think about this: 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day; by 2030, all 73 million will all have hit or surpassed this mark. As this story from NPR’s Shots notes, more seem to be willing to give weed a try for what ails them, particularly pain and nausea. And while it may help temporarily, there’s little data on marijuana’s longer-term effects on the aging body or brain. Yet one study showed that as many as 23% of older users did so with their doctor’s knowledge or encouragement.

“There is a dearth of evidence supporting the use of cannabinoids for medical indications in older adults,” study author Joshua Briscoe, M.D., an internist at Duke University Medical Center, said in a statement. “Common sense practices are applicable here, though, including performing a thorough assessment for side effects and expecting that lower doses will have a greater impact. As younger generations age, it is also important to expect that they have experience using marijuana in recreational contexts, which will affect their approach to its use in a medical setting.”

Although many states have decriminalized marijuana, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency still classifies it as a Schedule 1 drug, right up there with heroin and LSD. That makes it pretty tough for U.S. researchers to investigate effects. The drug has shown particular promise for neuropathic pain, though other research suggests the drug may reverse some age-related cognitive decline, at least in mice.

Some researchers say it’s less addictive and harmful than prescription drugs like opioids, but potency varies depending on the particular batch and form used. That can make it more challenging to control marijuana’s specific effects on the body. Older peoples’ tolerance for the drug may not be the same as younger users. They may also have interactions with other prescription medications, an increased risk of falls, or even potential effects on other health conditions (like heart problems). We just don’t know enough.

Despite these caveats, the stigma around using marijuana, especially for medical purposes, is disappearing — especially among the generation that grew up with wider availability. A new AHCJ tip sheet provides more background and resources to enhance your reporting on this topic, along with some story ideas you may want to pursue.

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