Cannabis use skyrocketing among older adults, but stigmas still persist

AURORA, Colo. — Cannabis use among older adults and seniors in the United States is rising faster than any other age group, a new study finds, but many feel accessing and learning about the drug has been somewhat difficult.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus say that there are 10 times as many cannabis users over 65 years old compared to earlier studies, according to figures from the 2016 National Survey of Drug Use and Health. The researchers wanted to understand how older adults perceived cannabis, how they consumed it and why, and any negative outcomes because of marijuana use.

“Older adults who use marijuana are ingesting it in a variety of ways for multiple purposes,” says co-author Sara Honn Qualls, a professor of psychology and director of the Gerontology Center at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, in a statement. “This and other papers from the same project show growing acceptance of marijuana use for medical purposes by older adults, and a clear desire to have their primary health providers involved in educating them about options and risks.

For their study, the researchers held 17 focus groups in senior centers, health clinics, and cannabis dispensaries in 13 Colorado counties. In all, 136 people over the age of 60 were involved, total. Some were cannabis users, some were not.

The authors found several common themes: a lack of research and education about cannabis, lack of provider communication about cannabis use, lack of access to medical cannabis, a lack of information about cannabis use outcomes, and an overall reluctance to discuss the use of cannabis.

The hesitation by patients to talk with their physicians about medical marijuana led to many simply paying more to purchase recreational pot. Other respondents said their doctors were either unable or unwilling to provide a medical marijuana certificate, and that physicians could educate themselves further on the latest cannabis research. These barriers made some feel self-conscious about trying to discuss the issue with their trusted healthcare providers.

“I think [doctors can] be a lot more open to learning about it and discussing it with their patients,” one focus group respondent told researchers. “Because at this point I have told my primary care I was using it on my shoulder. And that was the end of the conversation. He didn’t want to know why, he didn’t want to know about effects, didn’t want to know about side effects, didn’t want to know anything.”

Study co-author Dr. Hillary Lum, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, says comments like these show the need for doctors to be grow more comfortable on a topic that is clearly becoming more commonplace. Many seniors themselves still refer to the 1936 film “Reefer Madness” and other anti-marijuana attitudes that leave them feeling the drug is immoral, making it harder to overcome such stigmas.

“From a physician’s standpoint this study shows the need to talk to patients in a non-judgmental way about cannabis,” says Lum. “Doctors should also educate themselves about the risks and benefits of cannabis and be able to communicate that effectively to patients.”

The study is published in the journal Drugs & Aging.

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