Earlier this summer, a group of cross-party MPs who embarked on a fact-finding trip to Canada predicted that the UK will fully legalise cannabis use within five to ten years.
While cannabis is currently designated as a Class B drug in the UK, there has been a shift in approach towards medicinal cannabis products, which can now be legally prescribed to some patients. There has also been a significant growth in the sale of CBD oil.
And, as attitudes towards cannabis change, it’s been revealed that the fastest-growing group of users is over 50. So why are more and more older people turning to the drug?
Studies show more older people using marijuana
New research by Dr. Benjamin Han, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine at New York University School of Medicine, has revealed that more and more older people are turning to marijuana. And, the study lead says he is surprised to learn that many of the seniors turning to marijuana are new converts to its use.
The study found that about 45% of those over 65 who use the drug said they got started after the age of 21. And, baby boomers who use marijuana also seem to be using it more often, with 5.7% of older respondents saying they’d tried it in the past month.
There seem to be two main reasons that older people are turning to cannabis later in life:
- As adults reach retirement, they no longer have to undertake routine drug tests and feel liberated to abandon long-held proprieties
- In the hope of easing medical ailments, most notably chronic pain, arthritis and cancer.
However, if you’ve had prior experience with marijuana, you shouldn’t immediately use the same amount as you did in your younger years. The potency may be different, as well their ability to metabolize the drug. Dr Han says: “A smaller amount is going to hit you a lot harder when you’re older.”
Over 50s increasingly medicating using cannabis
There has yet to be any major, conclusive study that shows that marijuana is an effective treatment for depression, anxiety and pain. However, that hasn’t stopped increasing numbers of older people from using the drug as a treatment for these conditions – proven or not.
Most people associate medical marijuana with managing pain related to arthritis and cancer. Medical marijuana is also used to manage nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy; indeed, in the artificial cannabis product Nabilone is licensed in the UK for precisely this purpose.
Medical marijuana cannot currently be used in the UK for the treatment of arthritis as clinical trials to date have focused primarily on animal models. However, with increased clinical trials this area of treatment could well rapidly expand.
Even without firm proof, it’s clear that many people are self-medicating with marijuana in an attempt to manage a range of medical conditions. One positive effect of this increased usage is that cannabis could be a promising replacement for opioids which have a high rate of both addiction and accidental overdose.
A 2018 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found opioid prescriptions for Medicare part D recipients (benefits primarily for seniors) dropped 14% after a state legalized medical marijuana.
And, while some doctors have expressed concerns about seniors self-medicating with marijuana, almost everyone agrees the public health consequences of opioids are far worse. And the most serious health concerns associated with marijuana, such as impaired brain development, tend to affect younger people.
What about CBD oil?
In recent years, there has been a significant rise in the sale of CBD oil in the UK. And, Lloyds Pharmacy say that over half of its CBD customers are over 45.
But, considering cannabis’ status as a Class B drug, how is it legal to buy CBD oil?
It is because there are over 100 compounds in cannabis. THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is psychoactive – the one that gives you the ‘stoned’ effect that recreational cannabis users seek. However, CBD contains less than 0.2% THC, and it’s the absence of THC that makes it legal and, importantly, non-addictive.
Remember that CBD is not the same as medical cannabis. Medical marijuana does contain THC and has been legalised for use in countries including Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands as well as 33 US states.
Two cannabis-based drugs have a licence in the UK, but both contain THC as well as CBD. They are prescribed for chemotherapy patients to ease nausea, and for the muscle spasms and stiffness of multiple sclerosis.
So, when could CBD oil be effective?
CBD’s use for various forms of epilepsy is well documented, with several clinical trials having taken place.
The World Health Organization also records that there is preliminary evidence of CBD having beneficial use in treating Alzheimer’s, cancer and Parkinson’s disease, while research also appears to show a benefit for people with multiple sclerosis in reducing pain, spasticity and fatigue.
Pain management, particularly joint pain, with CBD oil has been in the headlines and a study published in the journal Pain last year showed that CBD oil could ease osteoarthritis pain.
Anxiety is the other condition often linked to CBD oil use and a research review concluded that: ‘existing preclinical evidence strongly supports CBD as a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.’
Increase in marijuana use in over-50s is not all positive news
While there may be more and more seniors using cannabis recreationally and for medical purposes, the boom in drug misuse among the over 50s is causing concern.
A report in the British Medical Journal in 2017 found that the number of people aged over 50 experiencing problems from substance misuse is increasing rapidly, with the numbers receiving treatment expected to double in Europe by 2020.
The latest NHS statistics back this up. They reveal the number of people receiving hospital treatment after taking drugs has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years. A decade ago, 1,380 people aged above 55 were admitted to hospital with drug-related behavioural or mental disorders, last year it was 7,800 – an increase of 465%.