A Beginner’s Guide to Medical Marijuana for Seniors

Have you considered medical marijuana for management of pain or other medical conditions? According to many reputable news outlets – like the New York Times and the Globe and Mail – a growing number of seniors are giving weed a go, using it to treat symptoms from conditions like arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and epilepsy.


Marijuana is not a universal panacea, and like all medications it affects individuals differently and has side effects worth considering. Use of medical marijuana should be considered in conjunction with medical professionals having regard to other medications being already taken, and other existing conditions that it might affect.


That said, there is increasing scientific evidence that marijuana can be effective in managing/reducing pain. Recent tests on mice in Germany curiously suggest the possibility that marijuana can treat dementia among aging populations, although research on humans will be needed to solidify such claims. While each case is different, it seems marijuana is a medication to consider in some instances in consultation with your doctor and caregivers.


Marijuana remains stigmatized in many people’s minds, but the gradual legalization of marijuana for medical (and recreational) purposes shows that the prevailing wisdom around the plant is changing. With legalization on the way in 2018, we have an opportunity to learn more about the topic! We have put together some resources for you to start thinking about whether this medication could be for you.


1) What is cannabis and how does it work?


Cannabis is a plant formerly grown mostly for industrial purposes (primarily linen and rope) that also has powerful painkiller and analgesic properties. The drug cannabis, consisting of derivatives like hash oil as well as the simple dried flowers, act on the body’s endocannabinoid system in such a way that can regulate (in some users) sleep, appetite, and mood.


There are many compounds involved in cannabis that likely play a role in producing the plant’s psychoactive and medicinal effects. Two of the most widely known compounds are THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, and CBD, cannabidinol. THC is often characterized as the key psychoactive component of cannabis while CBD is understood as being primarily palliative and non-psychoactive. However, it is also argued by some growers and connoiseurs that these distinctions are too simplistic and the compounds work best in tandem with one another in ways not yet fully understood. After all, the plant is highly complex – it contains more than 400 identifiable chemical components, including cannabinoids unique to cannabis. (Cannabinoids refer specifically to chemical compounds that act on the body’s endocannabinoid system, which plays a role in emotional regulation and the body’s immune system.)


2) What conditions can marijuana treat?


Cannabis can be helpful in treating a wide range of conditions and symptoms. For instance, cannabis has been used to effectively treat the symptoms of cancer – including nausea and loss of appetite – for quite some time. The right to treat serious illnesses like cancer, epilepsy and HIV/AIDS with marijuana was recognized by the Ontario Supreme Court in 2001. Aside from terminal illnesses, cannabis can help treat multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease and other issues with digestion, as well as arthritis, migraines, and other chronic pain. There are some patients with post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit disorder, and other issues with emotional regulation who report that marijuana helps calm their anxiety. The relationship between marijuana and anxiety is however highly disputed and it seems that cannabis may be helpful only to some people with those conditions – in some cases of mental illness, it has been reported that marijuana exacerbates anxiety. For more information on some of the illnesses cannabis can treat, visit: http://www.webmd.com/pain-management/features/medical-marijuana-uses


3) What are the benefits and drawbacks of using marijuana medicinally?


Marijuana affects individuals differently. Some people find it lowers their anxiety while others report having anxiety attacks. The unpredictable nature of the substance is often cited as one reason why it was not recommended medicinally for many years. The substance not only varies in its effects depending on the individual, but the strain of marijuana (how it was grown) and the quality of the plant in question. Not all cannabis is equally effective. Differences in levels of THC and CBD produce slightly different outcomes. For instance, it seems that a plant with a high THC and low CBD content can create a drug more likely to produce anxiety, but growing is not always a precise science. On top of this, the amount of marijuana consumed and the consumer’s tolerance to the drug can shape in different ways a person’s experience of a marijuana high.


Depending on the type of marijuana and the individual, you may experience increased hunger, drowsiness, a lift in mood, greater creativity, the urge to laugh at something commonplace, and a sense of relaxation, or you might experience heightened anxiety, even panic attacks. Some people find it does not affect them at all the first few times they try it. There are users who find it impairs their coordination, ability to balance, and their memory and judgment, but the degree to which this is the case is debated and seems to vary depending on the person in question and the amount consumed. Some people report that marijuana makes them irritable, and there is a risk of becoming addicted to marijuana, as is the case with medicinal opiates, benzodiazepines, and other medication and activities. That said, marijuana itself is not toxic enough to produce a physical dependence and withdrawal of the kind associated with opioids – nor a fatal overdose. Overdosing may cause short-term discomfort to some people, but no one has ever died from using marijuana in the safety of their own home (while driving is another question).


3) How do I consume cannabis?


Cannabis can be smoked, eaten in an edible product, taken as a pill and/or tincture, or applied topically as a cream. Each mode of ingestion produces different effects. Smoking cannabis is an effective way to dose the drug for many people, but it also causes damage to lungs and airways, compromising its medical efficacy for many people. Eating cannabis prevents damage to the lungs, but can lead to uncomfortable overdose, especially because the effects of eaten cannabis are delayed by the need for digestion, leading to further consumption. Applying marijuana topically to soothe joint pain produces no psychoactive effects, but this method tends to be most effective for less severe forms of chronic pain. The “high” seems to be a part of what makes the “laughing plant” an effective medication for many people.


4) How do I legally obtain marijuana?


In order to legally obtain medical marijuana, a patient must receive a doctor’s prescription, register with the AMCPR program by Health Canada, and purchase only the amount prescribed uniquely from Licensed Producers. It is also possible to grow your own. For more information, visit the Government of Canada’s website: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/topics/cannabis-for-medical-purposes.html. One LP company that caters to seniors is the Peace Naturals Project, whose owner claims he was motivated to get into the marijuana business after seeing how much the substance helped his own parents manage their pain in their later years. Check out the owner’s story in the Toronto Star: https://www.thestar.com/life/2014/01/17/faces_of_pot_the_grower.html


These are just a few questions you may have, and if you are looking for more information, for instance on how marijuana may mix with other medications you are taking, we recommend consulting your doctor. Be safe!