Fifty years ago, the San Francisco Bay Area was ground zero for pot-smoking hippies frolicking in the summer of love. That same generation is at it again, but this time the rules have changed. Instead of “turn on, tune in, drop out,” the new mantra is “start low and go slow.”
According to the latest National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of people age 65 and up who said they use marijuana grew 250 percent between 2006 and 2013.
One might assume that the Bay Area is full of elders well versed in cannabis use, but surprisingly, this is not so.
“What we’re seeing is half are brand new to cannabis and half are returning to it,” said Barbara Blaser, director of clinical services at Oakland’s Magnolia Wellness dispensary. “But not too many long-term users.”
The good news for rookie seniors navigating the perplexing and sometimes scary world of cannabis is the expertise and support available in the East Bay.
Oakland’s bright and welcoming Harborside Health Center is the largest medical cannabis dispensary in the United States and first in the country to support marijuana education for seniors. Six years ago, it began working with United Seniors, a community group that brought in interested seniors from churches and community centers. Now, seniors make up about 10 percent of Harborside’s clientele.
Cannabis is of particular interest to seniors because it has proven to be helpful for myriad issues, including insomnia, anxiety, loss of appetite, cancer, arthritis, and pain management. Research also indicates that it might benefit those with dementia, diabetes, and other diseases. Perhaps most significantly today, with prescription drug abuse and misuse rising rapidly among adults 60 and older, cannabis has emerged as a leading antidote to the opioid epidemic
Dr. Laurie Vollen is a medical marijuana doctor in Albany who works primarily with seniors. “I reluctantly came to be a cannabis-prescribing physician,” she said. “I was meeting patients who said it was helping them. I was compelled to look at it. I compared it to the alternatives, and it was superior.”
Vollen has mainly helped her senior clients with insomnia, pain, anxiety, and depression, but for many years, she has also been helping patients who are addicted to opioids. “Cannabis is the safest, most accessible and effective treatment for decreasing opioid desire, and some patients have been able to get off of them completely,” she said.
Despite the huge potential for relief, some seniors are still reluctant to try it. “Just Say No. DARE,” said Harborside community engagement director Kelly Quirke. “Stigma is still powerful in that generation.”
Blaser agreed. “They worry. ‘How do I tell my grandchildren after I told them not to smoke pot?'” She also added that another barrier to entry for many seniors is the fear that they will get high and lose control.
Blaser herself is a perfect example of how deep stigma and fear run. As a registered nurse, she was helping people with cannabis but never tried it herself until she became seriously ill and began suffering chronic pain. Even still, she needed prodding. “It wasn’t until a patient said to me, ‘How can you talk about it if you haven’t tried it?’
“I started with one bite of Kiva bar. I didn’t want to get high,” she said. Now she uses it regularly without fear.
“It’s all about the dose,” said Vollen. “As long as you control this, you don’t get high.”
Vollen thinks the framework for providing adequate guidance to allow seniors to use cannabis effectively still does not exist. “It’s extraordinarily complicated,” she said. “It’s not like going to pharmacy and getting a pill. It’s a journey.”
That’s precisely why Oakland resident and author Beverly Potter wrote Cannabis for Seniors. “It’s overwhelming,” she said about visiting a dispensary. “I go in there and look at the weird board and go ‘What?’
“You have to become a self-shaman,” she said. “You have to determine whether to eat, smoke, tincture, salve. Then there are terpenes. Strains. Microdosing. On and on. It’s so complicated, this plant. There are 60 cannabinoids and over 400 chemicals.”
She recommended a protocol that requires careful self-monitoring and thorough record-keeping. “By charting it, you get a sense of dosage and effect,” she said. “This is very different from prescribed medicine.” She suggested using one of the many journals and apps available for people who are tracking their progress, as well as websites describing the benefits of different strains.
Debbie Carrion, 59, a patient at Harborside with multiple issues, said pain-management specialist Morgan Tano walked her through the process. “It is constant trial and error. I was able to find things that would enable me to eat and sleep. A lot of it is just to relax so I didn’t feel the stresses of the pain.”
Carrion said that when she was on prescription medication, she spent $600 to $800 a month on drugs. “We were going bankrupt. I almost lost my house. Now I spend $100 a month. Right there-that is huge. And I’m able to participate more in life than three years ago.”
Harborside and Magnolia offer classes, senior support groups, and delivery service so seniors don’t have to leave the comfort of their homes. New companies that Potter called visiting angels for cannabis have also arrived on the scene. “They come to your house and help you get your medical card and teach you about the options,” she said. “It’s very personalized.”
Quirke added, “It’s a good idea for seniors to work with their doctor, because they know their history and body.” He also suggested finding a compounding doctor who can make custom blends.
For Potter and others, the benefits of cannabis go beyond what one thinks of as a traditional remedy. “I don’t like the word medicine,” she said, “I like to call it therapeutic. Medicine is narrow. Therapeutics is wide. Feeling good is therapeutic. It may not be medicinal but it is therapeutic.”
This report originally appeared in the January edition of our sister publication, Oakland Magazine.