Healthy Aging

Should you be using marijuana?

Close-up of Marijuana plants

As a child of the 60’s or 70’s, you may have spent your then-misguided youth kicking back with a bit of weed, pot, MJ, or whatever it was called in your ‘hood. Then you graduated, got married, started raising kids and put it all aside.

Until the arthritis in your knee, or anxiety over college tuition, or depression made it impossible to sleep or function.  Enter the medical marijuana card—or if you’re in a state with legal recreational marijuana—the trip to the dispensary.

Marijuana use is up among older adults, and that return-to-weed scenario is a common one explaining the boom, says Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). He cites an analysis of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2006-13; more than 47,000 respondents age 50 and older answered questions about their habits in the past year. The use of marijuana increased by about 60% for adults 50 to 64 and a whopping 250% for those 65 and older.

Helping the boost in interest, no doubt, are also the growing numbers of states legalizing medical marijuana—now 30 and the District of Columbia, plus Guam and Puerto Rico. Another 16 states have laws on the books approving the use of CBD (cannabidiol), a non-psychoactive marijuana component that also has some medical applications.

Evidence of Benefits

Another important driving force: scientific opinion suggests that yes, marijuana might be good for what ails you. In 2017, the prestigious U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report after evaluating more than 10,000 scientific studies on marijuana for health conditions. Its conclusions: evidence for marijuana is strongest for treating chronic pain, multiple sclerosis-related muscle spasms, and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

However, other uses are also backed up by anecdotal reports, says Donald Abrams, MD, an integrative oncologist and  professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who served on the Academies’ expert committee. For those over 60, he says, marijuana may also help insomnia,  anxiety, and other conditions. “I had a woman [patient] today using it for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” he says. “Her husband and her best friend both died on the same day.”

For some older adults, turning to marijuana helps them get off prescription medicines they no longer want to take, such as antidepressants, or serves as opioid alternatives, says Sheigla Murphy, PhD, a medical sociologist and executive director of the Institute for Scientific Analysis in San Francisco. She believes the stigma about using marijuana is lessening, although it has not disappeared. Currently, she is studying attitudes of early boomers (1946-57) and late boomers (1958-64) to find out more about use patterns and beliefs about its health and social consequences.

The medical benefits of marijuana must be weighed against potential risks, Dr. Abrams cautions. “Older people ae more likely to have some cardiac issues,” he says. “Cannabis increases the heart rate and can increase or decrease blood pressure. That would be something to be concerned about.”

Talking to Your Doctor

If you think medical marijuana might help what ails you, talking to your doctor about it is the crucial first step. “[Patients] should ask the doctor what they think about using it for a particular condition,” Abrams says. If the doctor doesn’t know, try to get a referral to a doctor who knows about medical marijuana.

Among suggested questions:

  • What are the risks and benefits for using it for this condition?
  • Will it affect my current medicines?
  • If I smoke it, will second-hand smoke be an issue for pets or others?
  • What are the strongest studies on marijuana for this condition?  

Consider taking documentation about how medical marijuana may help your condition, suggests the Americans for Safe Access group. On its website, it publishes booklets for several conditions for which marijuana may help, with citations to the evidence.

For more information

To keep up with where it’s legal, and to what extent, check out a map maintained by NORML.

If the weed doesn’t help you fall asleep, you can read the entire, bulky National Academies report here. (Click the free download option on the upper right.)

The National Institute on Drug Abuse primer on marijuana is here.


Nothing contained in this site is intended to establish a physician-patient relationship, to replace the services of a trained physician or health care professional, or otherwise to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.





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