Thoughts on medical marijuana

Created date

January 22nd, 2019
The use of marijuana has been growing across the nation as more and more states legalize its recreational and medicinal use.

The use of marijuana has been growing across the nation as more and more states legalize its recreational and medicinal use.

The use of marijuana has been growing across the nation as more and more states legalize its recreational and medicinal use. Seniors are not shying away and are among the many who are giving it a try. A recent survey completed in Colorado, where recreational use is legal, found that about 30% of seniors have tried the drug in the past and that about half of those have tried it since legalization. Other studies reflect this trend in rising marijuana (cannabis) use among seniors—mostly younger seniors, who are part of the Baby Boomer generation and who may have used cannabis recreationally when they were younger.

Now that medical marijuana is legal in 31 states, it makes sense to carefully and objectively review what we know about cannabis and its effectiveness and safety. Although some forms of cannabis are considered “medical,” they are not all regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). There are only two marijuana-based medicines approved by the FDA for specific uses—one for chemotherapy-related nausea, and one for appetite stimulation in people with AIDS who have experienced extreme weight loss.

Beyond these two specific indications, marijuana has been extensively studied and used for a variety of indications. The best evidence of its effectiveness is in the treatment of chronic pain, pain due to neurologic disease, and spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis. Additionally, one form of cannabis (cannabidiol) has been used successfully in the treatment of epilepsy.

Need for more data

Despite much study, we are still relatively early in our understanding of the many impacts of marijuana on our health and well-being. There is not nearly enough data, much less long-term data, to verify the safety of cannabis—whether recreational or medical—for seniors. One consistent finding for certain is that marijuana has a number of significant adverse side effects, and like all drugs its potential benefit must be carefully weighed against its potential harm.

The immediate effects of marijuana include impaired shortterm memory, judgment, and coordination. It has been demonstrated that marijuana doubles the risk of having a motor vehicle accident. Additionally, marijuana is potentially addictive, and regular use can be associated with an increased risk of anxiety, depression, and psychotic illness. Cannabis should generally be avoided if you are already on medications to treat your mental health.  Significant irritation to the airway has been shown to occur with smoking marijuana—even more so than irritation caused by tobacco smoke. Regular use can also result in cognitive problems, memory deficits, a reduced sex drive, and dependence with a withdrawal syndrome associated with stopping cannabis.

In addition, cardiovascular-related adverse effects have occurred, and changes in heart rate and blood pressure are not uncommon with cannabis use. Early research suggests there is an association between marijuana use and heart attack, stroke, and vascular disease. Of great concern is the use of marijuana to self-medicate for anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbance, as the drug may ultimately aggravate these conditions and result in dependency.

As with all medicine, please consult your physician and have the discussion about the potential benefits and risks of using marijuana. There is still much to learn, so it is particularly important to make sure you have exhausted all the potentially safer and more effective treatment options before considering cannabis.


In good health,

Dr. Narrett

Dr. Narrett leads the medical team at all Erickson Living communities. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, he has been providing care for seniors for over three decades.