Medical marijuana helps senior sleep and contend with other problems of aging

senior smoking weed hbtv hemp beach tvBefore Cherie Scott goes to sleep every night, the 86-year-old has a sweet bedtime snack: a marijuana cookie.

With her chic bob hairstyle and tweed blazer, Scott — who prefers to be addressed as “Mrs. Scott” — doesn’t exactly fit the stoner stereotype. Admittedly, before she tried it, she was totally against the drug.

“I thought the whole system, it was evil and addictive and you were a little cuckoo with it,” the Burnaby senior told The Province.

But when she found herself in a dire situation, unable to sleep after her husband died of lung cancer in 1980, Scott said she was desperate for relief. Fearing she would become addicted to sleeping pills, Scott’s son suggested she try marijuana.

Mitch D’Kugener, who has a doctor’s prescription, smoked pot to alleviate symptoms of his attention deficit disorder and arthritis pain, and he thought it might also help his mom.

“Now she’s having the best sleep that she’s had in the last 30 years,” he said. “Her quality of life has improved.”

A Growing Trend

Scott is part of a growing trend of seniors starting to use medical marijuana to find relief from illnesses that are often age-related, such as arthritis and dementia. Many are unlikely to try marijuana on their own, but are introduced to the idea by their children or younger relatives.

“A lot of it is the older generation is just less aware,” said Dana Larsen, director of the Vancouver Dispensary Society. “A lot of the medical benefits of cannabis have really just been explored in the last few years, and the information is just getting out there.”

As most marijuana research has looked at people who smoke the drug for recreational reasons, scientific evidence on the medical benefits is sparse. But research has found marijuana can be helpful in treating nausea in chemotherapy patients as well as nerve pain, and may stimulate appetite in people with AIDS, according to a 1999 review from the Institute of Medicine, a prestigious U.S. health advisory group.

Larsen, a longtime pot-legalization activist who founded the B.C. Marijuana Party, said some seniors who visit the dispensary tried marijuana in their youth, but many are first-time users.

According to Larsen, marijuana seems to help seniors in a way that pharmaceutical drugs don’t. Some even stop taking medication previously prescribed to them once they try the substance, he said.

“A lot of what we do is teaching people how to use it properly and how to consume it in the right way,” Larsen said.

Vancouver’s Med Pot Now dispensary, one of about 30 in the city, has seen a “huge leap” in younger patients bringing in their parents and grandparents, as well as non-patients calling to get their older relatives signed up, according to the dispensary’s manager Jordana Casey.

Legal Grey Area

Medical marijuana dispensaries operate in a legal grey area. The courts have ruled that Canadians have a constitutional right to use marijuana for medical reasons. Health Canada started growing marijuana to satisfy this right.

But when the federal agency was unable to meet the increasing demand of patients — who also were unhappy with what they considered to be a low-quality product — compassion clubs and dispensaries emerged.

For the most part, Vancouver police tolerate the dispensaries unless they receive a complaint, said Larsen.

On a Thursday morning at the Medical Cannabis Dispensary in Vancouver’s West End, Mrs. Scott shook her head in disbelief as her son put a flame to a pipe full of cannabis resin, and took a long, slow inhalation.

“With a puff like that, I’d be in Never Never Land,” she said with a chuckle.

Unlike her son, however, Scott doesn’t enjoy getting high and consumes only a small amount. “I’m not sitting there toking away until I’m stoned,” she said. “I like my brain working very well.”

Her daily routine involves nibbling on a marijuana cookie or having one or two tokes during the day. She said if she wakes up during the night, one light toke helps lull her back to sleep. As she grows older, Scott said, she increasingly suffers from nausea and stomach problems, which marijuana also helps to soothe.

Different Tokes For Different Folks

Contrary to popular belief, getting high is not an enjoyable aspect for many people using medical marijuana, said Larsen. Different strains of marijuana can make a difference, he said. While the indica strain is more likely to help with pain and sleeping problems, and can provide users with a sense of calm, the sativa strain infuses a person with energy and stimulates appetite.

Marijuana doesn’t need to be smoked. The substance can be ingested in capsule form, as a tincture with drops placed under the tongue, in the form of baked goods or as a cream or ointment for arthritis.

“Some people enjoy the high, and for some people the high is an unwanted side-effect that they don’t have to experience,” said Larsen. “You want to find the right variety to use in the right situation.”

Offering help to patients also often brings relief to their families, said Dori Dempster, manager of the Westside dispensary.

“It’s not just about filling people’s bags so they can smoke all the joints that they want,” she said. “It’s about bringing relief to people in the way that it’s needed.”

One patient, Dempster recalled, who was suffering from dementia and was becoming increasingly agitated, found relief after trying marijuana in the form of food products, called “edibles.” The man’s family contacted the dispensary when his dementia was causing him to behave in a way that — if he was in his normal frame of mind — he wouldn’t have thought was dignified. But with edibles, Dempster said, the man’s entire demeanour changed.

“His anger issues went away and he was able to sleep better,” she said. “He was just very, very happy.”

Medical Marijuana Across Canada

Across Canada, B.C. has the highest number of licensed medical marijuana users.

According to December 2012 figures from Health Canada, 13,362 people can possess medical marijuana in this province, while 9,369 people are licensed to grow it for their own medicinal use. The numbers don’t include the many patients who choose to bypass Health Canada’s licensing program and go straight to a dispensary.

People who are licensed to possess marijuana may legally buy the substance from Health Canada’s growers. Buying marijuana from a dispensary is illegal for all patients, regardless of whether they have a licence. A licence only offers protection from being charged with possession if a person is found with marijuana by a police officer, Larsen said.

“Once they’ve got our marijuana in their hands, if they’re allowed to possess it from Health Canada, then they’re allowed to possess our marijuana, too,” he said.

Larsen said many patients choose the faster, and more confidential, route of buying marijuana from a dispensary instead of from Health Canada, which can take several weeks.

“A lot of folks just don’t like being on a government list of marijuana people,” he said. “They’re afraid that it might come back at them in some way.”

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