Cannabis is a hot topic. The government has introduced the Misuse of Drugs (Medicinal Cannabis) Amendment Bill, which allows for terminally ill people to possess and use cannabis but not grow it. National is proposing that its own bill is a “much more comprehensive and thought out” piece of legislation, which is expected to include a medicinal cannabis identification card issued by doctors, like those used in parts of the US.

I don’t profess to be a medical expert or have a deep understanding of the pros and cons of cannabis on our health or healthcare system. However, as someone with considerable experience in aged care, I do feel there needs to be more – and better quality – information provided on the impact of cannabis for seniors.

We have been told that cannabis can help reduce some types of chronic pain, muscle spasms, anxiety, stimulate the appetite and help with insomnia – all common ailments for the elderly. For those reasons alone, more research needs to go into looking at the drug for this vulnerable demographic.

Some surveys have found that using cannabis can mean a decreased use of pharmaceuticals, including the more addictive opioids. If true, I imagine this would represent an enormous saving on the New Zealand health system, given that it is not uncommon for an elderly person to take up to 15 to 20 prescription tablets a day. Not to mention the patient benefits of reduced levels of medication.

Of course, the flip side of the argument is that the elderly can suffer from dementia and confusion, visual impairments, frequent falls and mobility problems, all of which smoking cannabis may exacerbate. I’ve also read that the drug can lead to an increased risk of arrhythmia or trigger a stroke.

In those countries where cannabis is legalised for medicinal purposes, I know that older patients represent a large and growing population using it. In fact, US surveys reveal that the biggest increase in use has been in the over-65-year olds.

Unfortunately, very few studies and certainly no local ones, have addressed how it affects them or the best way to treat them with medicinal cannabis i.e. THC removed liquids or sprays, natural buds etc.

Until we have some high-quality data, we can only speculate on risks and benefits for the wider elderly population.

We need to take a thorough and considered approach and to eliminate scare-mongering. It simply isn’t good enough to argue that cannabis is addictive, that it’s a gateway drug that will lead to more addictive and dangerous substance taking, that controlled legalisation for medicinal use threatens younger people.

As someone who spends more time around the elderly than most, I can tell you categorically that they don’t want to get high, and they don’t want to share it with their grandchildren either. All they want it for is to feel well and be able to live what’s left of their lives without constant pain and distress.


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