Why the Elderly Are the Fastest-Growing Pot Demographic in the U.S.

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On a recent Friday at the Balfour Riverfront Park senior living facility in downtown Denver, an unusual event took place among the day’s regular activities. In between scrapbooking at the Sky Bar and water walking in the Pompeii Pool, the facility was hosting a “cannabis 101” seminar in the Moffat Depot community room.

As one of the 50 or so attendees bellows at his neighbors to quiet the chitchat, Joseph Cohen, medical director at Holos Health, a Denver holistic medicine and medical marijuana evaluation center, steps in front of the audience in the sunlight-filled room, tastefully decorated with golden chandeliers, chenille couches, and potted mock orange trees. “I will try to go slower than my usual pace for my talk,” he says into a microphone, noting he’d be discussing cannabis’ uses for a variety of age-related diseases.

“The idea is to minimize psychoactive activity and maximize therapeutic effects,” he says, then adds with a smile, “Unless you want to have psychoactivity. Then go for it.”

This free seminar is the brainchild of Stratos, a Colorado marijuana company that produces medical cannabis tablets. Since launching in 2014, the firm has found its simple and discreet product lines — which come in somber bottles with names like “Sleep,” “Relax,” and “Energy” — are a hit among one demographic in particular: seniors. “The baby boomer generation has been huge for us,” says Kate Heckman, Stratos’ sales director, who’s watching Cohen’s presentation from the side of the room.

Stratos stumbled upon a seemingly surprising phenomenon: According to a 2016 study, seniors are the fastest-growing pot demographic in the country, with marijuana use among those 55 and older increasing by 53 percent between 2013 and 2014. But the trend isn’t as unusual as it might sound: Many of the ailments cannabis is most often used to treat are those that often plague the elderly, such as joint inflammation and pain, insomnia, muscle spasms, and decreased appetite.

Many older consumers have disposable income to spend on marijuana, at least according to the sort of luxury senior-living amenities on view at Balfour Riverfront. The compound, nestled in the heart of Denver’s booming downtown and surrounded by modern condos and lush riverfront gardens, feels more like an all-inclusive resort than an assisted-living facility, with its valet parking out front and open-air patio bars. For the most part, the residents attending the cannabis 101 talk look hale and healthy, boasting the poise and vigor of those who’ve earned a comfy retirement. Cohen, with his comfortable short-sleeved shirt, well-manicured beard, and grey ponytail, fits right in.

Balfour is part of a growing trend of operations and organizations tackling the issue of seniors and marijuana use. For years, Harborside Health Center, a prominent dispensary in Oakland, California, has been hosting monthly support groups for patients over 50. In early 2017, New York City nursing home captured headlines for allowing residents to store and use cannabis on site. The storied National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has organized cannabis informational sessions and lobbying efforts geared towards seniors under its so-called “Silver Tour.” And earlier this year, the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine, a major organization of medical providers, discussed cannabis use at its annual conference. Judging from the interest at this cannabis 101 seminar, events like these won't be the last of their kind.

Many nursing homes, whose higher level of care is regulated by the federal government, could be fearful of losing Medicare and Medicaid funds if they permit cannabis use. But an assisted-living facility like Balfour doesn’t have rules prohibiting its residents from consuming marijuana as long as they don’t violate the facility’s no-smoking policy. (In other words, no joints or bongs.) But there’s another barrier to entry for even those at Balfour: A lack of education. After long being told cannabis is no different than other dangerous street drugs, many could be confused about this bold new world of legalized marijuana.

That’s why, after some initial hesitation, Balfour agreed to Stratos’ proposal to hold these seminars, several of which are also taking place at other Balfour residences in the area. “For me, it’s really important for communities like Balfour not to be some kind of gatekeeper or paternalistic guardian,” says Balfour CEO Michael Schonbrun, who hasn’t noticed anyone actively consuming cannabis at his facilities — but adds that it doesn’t mean folks aren’t doing so. “We want our communities to be places where people are exposed to new ideas. Let people make their own decisions.”

Plus, adds Schonbrun, “When you get old, something happens to your body. If this is something that can help with arthritis, cancer treatments, diabetes, and a whole range of other illnesses, why not bring it to people’s attention?”

According to Cohen’s presentation, medical marijuana can help with all of those ailments and many more. Over his hour-long talk, aided by a text-dense PowerPoint presentation that’s devoid of psychedelic stoner images, the physician holds forth on every aspect of the modern cannabis industry. In a slow, droning voice, he covers marijuana research and the war on drugs, cannabinoid receptors and terpenes, transdermal marijuana patches, and ultra-high-potency “dabbing” (the latter of which elicits a rumble of concern from the audience). Cohen says his wife found relief from an autoimmune disease thanks to cannabis, and he speaks of the plant like a true believer, listing condition after condition it can be used to treat: Anxiety, opioid withdrawal, diabetes, osteoporosis, psoriasis, neuropathy, muscle spasms, Parkinson's, cancer. He even recommends low-THC, high-cannabidiol strains for diabetic dogs.

But many of these treatments aren’t yet supported by thorough research. Studies related to marijuana use among the elderly are especially scarce, which is a concern since many older people have conditions or take pharmaceuticals that cannabis could impact in unexpected ways. “While they certainly are not the target of the new Big Marijuana industry, there are health and safety concerns [for this population],” says Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of the major anti-legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “For example, older people are more likely to drive unsafe and have weaker memories — marijuana, in particular THC, makes those things worse.”

To the contrary, at least one recent study suggested marijuana could actually improve cognitive functioning in elderly brains. But that research was preliminary; there’s still a lot we don’t know about cannabis’ potential benefits — and its risks. According to Cohen in his presentation, that’s because the “medical-industrial complex” and the federal government have long worked with doctors and universities to suppress science around the plant. “Welcome to America, folks,” he says with a wry smile.

At the end of Cohen’s presentation, an attendee stands up and introduces himself as a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University. “You do a very nice presentation, but you do yourself a disservice when you talk about medical facilities suppressing medical information,” he tells Cohen sternly.

A physician in the audience concurs. “I am very suspicious of people like you who accuse the medical establishment of suppressing medical research,” he says. “You said that up front, and you lost me.”

These seniors, it turns out, don’t need convincing that marijuana has been unfairly stigmatized for decades. They’re already okay with legalized cannabis use. Now they just want the facts, minus the hyperbole.

Cohen’s rabblerousing doesn’t turn off everyone at cannabis 101. After the talk, several folks approach Heckman about potential doses of Stratos capsules. Others will likely take part in upcoming Stratos-sponsored shuttle rides to a nearby dispensary.

Still, despite Cohen’s thorough presentation, questions remain. When the doctor asks if audience members have questions, a man with white tufts of hair sprouting above his ears raises his hand. “You have gone through this huge list of what it will do,” he says. ”But will it grow hair?”