Column: Will medical marijuana provide hope for older adults?

Published Oct. 28, 2016

Older adults tend to suffer from a number of ailments for which medical marijuana could provide some relief, with fewer side effects than existing treatments. Despite its potential medicinal use, medical marijuana is currently illegal at the federal level and illegal or severely restricted in many states, including Florida, a state with the highest proportion in the country of those who are 65 or older.

Medical marijuana may help to alleviate symptoms associated with many chronic conditions through the body's own endocannabinoid system. The body produces endocannabinoids and uses them to regulate organs, glands, the nervous system, connective tissues and the immune system. Cannabinoids found in medical marijuana can perform similar functions because they imitate the endocannabinoids that are naturally produced in our bodies. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, for example, affect the nervous system, which cannabinoids could help stabilize. Pain and arthritis symptoms could be alleviated by cannabinoids blocking pain-producing inflammation. Medical marijuana reduces nausea and increases appetite — alleviating common cancer treatment side effects.

Medical marijuana could provide relief for these conditions with few side effects compared to medicines currently used. The side effects of medical marijuana include dizziness, impaired driving ability, and the possibility of negative drug interactions. Prescription opioids, on the other hand, tend to generate more side effects, including: impaired driving ability, dizziness, constipation, tolerance and physical dependence, sedation and overdose sometimes leading to death. There have been no documented overdose deaths attributed to marijuana. In 2010, however, prescription opioids were responsible for almost 50 percent of all deaths due to drug overdoses in the United States.

Older adults are also more susceptible to the negative side effects of prescription drugs, and many have multiple prescriptions. In states where medical marijuana was legal, physicians gave out 4,593 fewer prescriptions for all conditions (anxiety, depression, nausea, pain, psychosis, seizures, sleep disorders, spasticity), and 1,826 fewer specifically for pain medications annually per physician. Other findings show that the cost savings for Medicare Part D had risen to $165.2 million by 2013. Overall, if all states had implemented medical marijuana laws, the total savings to Medicare Part D would have been $468.1 million.

Fear certainly contributes to the misgivings surrounding medical marijuana. Studies have shown, however, few negative impacts in states that allow use. Studies in Colorado and Washington have shown that since medical marijuana was legalized, teen rates of use have been unchanged. In Colorado, there has been a slight increase in ER visits of children under 9 from accidental ingestion, but ERs and poison control centers are far more likely to see children who have ingested other substances like laundry detergent or crayons. Traffic fatalities have also remained largely unchanged since medical marijuana was legalized. The potential for abuse of the drug can be curbed by frequent monitoring and evaluation of the patient by a medical doctor.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

In November, Florida voters will decide Amendment 2 — which would allow for the use of medical marijuana for debilitating medical conditions. Amendment 2 would broaden Florida's 2014 medical marijuana bill, which already allows low-THC, high-CBD medical marijuana prescriptions for children with epilepsy or other debilitating conditions. Amendment 2 would also allow use by adults who are eligible as determined by a licensed Florida physician as having one of the following debilitating conditions: cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, ALS, Crohn's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and other debilitating medical conditions as determined by a physician. Physicians must perform a physical examination and full medical assessment of the patient and verify that the use of medical marijuana would outweigh the risks and determine the length of use.

Contrary to the claims of the "No on 2" campaign, the amendment language clearly states that it will not allow for violation of any law, affect or repeal laws that relate to non-medical use, allow use by anyone other than qualified patients, permit operation of any vehicle while under the influence, shall not require correctional, education, or workplace facilities to accommodate use, nor require medical insurance providers to pay for medical marijuana.

Voters in Florida have an opportunity to vote yes on Amendment 2 and offer millions of Floridians living with chronic debilitating conditions a safer way to manage the pain that mars the lives of many of them.

Lori Gonzalez and Lisa Rill are affiliated with the Claude Pepper Center at Florida State University.