Ailing Seniors and the Rise of Medical Marijuana

Karen Michel


From NPR Here & Now and our content partner New America Media  


NEW YORK--Larry Yokelson uses a walker and is on oxygen 24/7. “I am not a pothead,” he stated. Although he is age 87, Yokelson is familiar with the stuff—he used to be a driver for rock bands.


“You want to know some of them,” he asked? “Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney—I can't even tell you the list.”


Yokelson said that just about all of his passengers smoked pot. But he didn’t like it. More recently, he didn’t like the opioids he’d been prescribed for his constant back pain, either. “You name it and I've been on it. You become so constipated on opiates you want to kill yourself,” he said.


He told his daughter, Jan, he was ready to give up. She recalled, “He said he was done, put me in hospice, I'm done, I can't live like this.” But Yokelson found a sympathetic doctor.


“He gave me a prescription, and I was in agony up to that point,” Yokelson said. “So I took it at night and I woke up in the morning and I said to everybody in the house I'm pain free in one dose.”


He declared, “Medical marijuana to me is a miracle — and it actually saved my life. “


Legal in 29 States


With 29 states allowing medical marijuana, seniors have been increasingly seeking its curative powers. But there are many obstacles, ranging from paying for the herb to finding a doctor who is licensed to prescribe it.


Yokelson takes a tincture of medical marijuana under his tongue at night and a capsule during the day. In New York it’s not even possible to get something to smoke or eat. At his age, Yokelson is part of the fastest-growing group of medical marijuana users -- old folks, according to a 2016 study at New York University (NYU) published in Addiction, journal of the Society for the Study of Addiction.


“This has been a really understudied issue," said NYU geriatric physician Benjamin Han, the study’s lead researcher. “Previous generations have had a very low prevalence of using drugs and alcohol. But with the baby boomer generation this is really going to change dramatically,” he predicted.



Han is not using hyperbole here. In a sample of 47,000 people ages 65 and older, the prevalence of marijuana use—whether medically of recreationally, showed about a 250 percent increase between 2006 and 2013.


For another study on seniors and medical marijuana, the University of Iowa’s Brian Kaskie found that state program directors reported a huge increase in applications from folks over 60.


“I've been in states from Colorado, Minnesota, Vermont, Missouri—we've been all over—and in those focus groups with medical cannabis the stories were just amazing,” Kaskie said. The study was published last January in the journal, The Gerontologist.


Kaskie found the stories from what he calls “the more interesting bunch” were folks like Larry Yokelson, those with an aversion to marijuana, especially smoking it. But medical marijuana comes in many forms.


“You can take it as a pill or edible form,” Kaskie said. “You could rub in on your skin lesions. That's what I saw one person with cancer doing, and it provided relief for him. And that just was what really struck me. It's like, wow, there's a whole population of older persons out there who actually see this as a medical benefit.”


Kaskie noted that marijuana by federal law is a schedule one drug, along with heroin, making its acceptance more of a challenge for potential patients and their providers. That’s because “they don't want the liability associated with dispensing something that hasn't been approved by the federal government,” he explained.


Dispensaries (Now With Delivery)


Each state has its own medical marijuana regulations. New York is among the most restrictive. Columbia Care has its own marijuana dispensaries in several states, including New York.


Its dispensary in New York City is on a major, busy street that is considered a dividing line between uptown and downtown. There’s a guard in front checking patient ID’s, a card much like a driver's license. Inside there’s a friendly receptionist and comfy seating. According to Columbia Care’s CEO Nicolas Vita, in New York State, the average age of a patient is 54.


“I think that the aging population is actually one of the fastest growing markets nationally for medical marijuana products,” Vita said. “And our view is the products we manufacture should separate themselves from the counterculture history and focus on the medicinal applications and the benefits.”


Studies and experience have shown there are many conditions of older people that are especially responsive to treatment with medical marijuana. Key among them are neuropathy (a malfunction of nerves that can cause numbness or pain), lack of appetite, pain and difficulty sleeping, conditions that can lead to serious illness. But there are many barriers to access beyond any legal concerns.


Yokelson observed, “Medicaid and Medicare does not pay for it, for reimbursement. So it's a very tough thing for the aging population to go through.”


He relies on his daughter to drive 45 minutes to get medical marijuana for him. But recently, several dispensaries started offering home delivery. And dispensaries in New York and elsewhere now offer video consultations with home delivery. But it all comes at a price.


Karen Michel produced this story for NPR’s Here & Now with support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, The Gerontological Society of America and The Silver Century Foundation.

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