Anita Mataraso began using marijuana therapeutically 25 years ago to ease the physical discomfort and other symptoms of Lyme disease. The disease left her with side effects, including nerve damage and fibromyalgia that she had trouble treating with conventional medications.
Though at the time she wasn’t aware of the medical applications of marijuana, Mataraso knew that it was one of the few things that made her symptoms feel better. “When I smoked, I was able to escape the pain in my body for a couple hours, and it was very helpful to me in that regard,” she says.
More than two decades later, Mataraso is now the director of the Rossmoor Medical Marijuana Education and Support Club at the Rossmoor senior community in Walnut Creek, Calif. She now finds herself at the forefront of a growing trend of seniors turning to medical marijuana for recreational and especially therapeutic purposes. The club has grown from 20 members just five years ago to a roster of 500 people. “Our mission is to educate people about cannabis and how it may impact their lives, particularly in terms of senior issues,” says Mataraso.
A National Trend
Statistics suggest that the membership growth Mataraso has seen at Rossmoor reflects a national trend. The prevalence of past-year cannabis use among adults age 50 or older rose significantly between 2006 and 2013, increasing 57.8 percent for adults age 50–64 and a whopping 250 percent for those 65 and older, according to a study released by the National Institutes of Health.
Meanwhile, public opinion on the legalization of marijuana has shifted dramatically over the years. As of October 2016, 57 percent of Americans say that marijuana use should be legal, while 37 percent say it should be illegal, according to a Pew Research Center Survey. A decade ago, popular opinion was nearly the reverse: 60 percent opposed legalization and just 32 percent were in favor.
As opinions change, so does the perceived stigma surrounding pot use.
“Probably the single most motivating factor changing the way people think of marijuana is that, in many jurisdictions, the regulated use of marijuana by qualified patients or any adult has shifted from illegal activity to legal activity,” says Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, or NORML, an organization that seeks to legalize responsible marijuana use among adults. “Many seniors who in the past were ineligible to use marijuana or who were violating the law are now able to do so,” he explains.
Why Marijuana Use is Growing
Armentano cites two other reasons for the increase in pot use among seniors: a growing awareness of the perceived therapeutic applications of the drug and the fact that many baby boomers are resuming marijuana use after many decades as they retire and their children are grown.
“This is a population that, in many cases, has some past firsthand experience with cannabis,” he says. “But the majority of adults ceased their use because they entered the workforce at 20 or 30 and had kids. Now that the children are grown up, and the folks are retired, they’re returning to the use of a substance they once enjoyed.”
A number of states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, and as of November 2016, four states had legalized recreational marijuana use for adults. Yet federal law, through the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, continues to list it as a Schedule 1 drug—in the same category as heroin.
Officially, the federal government finds that marijuana has no medicinal value, and research on the therapeutic properties of the drug has been limited in the U.S.
Even so, research and anecdotal evidence points to marijuana being a potentially useful treatment for many common medical conditions that seniors grapple with, including chronic pain.
“There is also an awareness that many conventional medications that are prescribed possess a litany of significant and adverse side effects, and many older adults are making a calculation that they can substitute therapeutic cannabis for some of their other medication,” says Armentano.
Cheryl Shuman, founder of the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club and the founder of marijuana activist group Moms for Marijuana International, has noticed an uptick in demand from seniors for products they can use therapeutically, so much so that she plans to roll out a line of products designed specially for seniors. “Seniors more than any other group can benefit the most because when you consider the fact that many of them have glaucoma, Alzheimer’s, dementia, pain—and marijuana works,” she says.
Shuman began using therapeutic marijuana after receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer at age 47. She was visiting her elderly parents at the time and was rushed into emergency surgery. Her prognosis was not good, and doctors advised her to consider hospice care.
After receiving her diagnosis, Shuman reconnected with a high school friend who suggested she try marijuana with a high level of cannabidiol (CBD), which is not psychoactive and is reported to have anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. “By month two, not only was I walking and doing light exercise, I was showering on my own again, working on computer and doing yoga,” she says. “Within 90 days, I was in full remission and able to go back to work full-time.”
At first, Shuman’s parents were skeptical of the effectiveness of marijuana and wary of its illegality. They even refused to allow her into their home. But after seeing the success their daughter had using the drug, their views changed. “It went from my parents not allowing me in the house to my mom calling me everyday and asking about my progress,” she says. “My mom even asked if I thought it could work for her.”
Trend Expected to Grow
The legal strides marijuana legislation has made have made it much easier for people to explore and discuss their use of the drug. And though some stigma and stereotypes surrounding pot remain among seniors, Armentano says he expects the trend toward greater acceptance and use to stay. “Support is only going to grow in the future,” he says, pointing out that younger generations are even more supportive of pot use than seniors and baby boomers.
Mataraso agrees. “The trend will continue and the research and the science is going to knock out the [misinformation] that’s been going around all these years,” she says.