While experts say they don’t know exactly how many older Americans rely on marijuana for medicinal purposes, the number of Americans 65 and older who say they are using the drug skyrocketed 250 percent from 2006 to 2013.
Some patients turn to friends, patient advocacy groups or online support groups for information.
Owen, for one, kept searching for a doctor and eventually found a neurologist willing to certify her to use marijuana and advise her on what to take.
“It’s saved my life,” said the retired university administrative assistant who credited marijuana for weaning her off opioids. “It not only helps my pain, but I can think, walk and talk again.”
Mary Jo, a Minnesotan, was afraid of being identified as a medical marijuana user, even though she now helps friends navigate the process and it’s legal in her home state.
“There’s still a stigma,” said Mary Jo, who found it effective for treating her pain from a nerve condition. “Nobody helps you figure it out, so you kind of play around with it on your own.”
Still, doctors and scientists worry about the implications of such experimentation.
In a sweeping report last year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called on the federal government to support better research, decrying the “lack of definitive evidence on using medical marijuana.”
The national academies’ committee reviewed more than 10,000 scientific abstracts related to the topic. It made 100 conclusions based on its review, including finding evidence that marijuana relieves pain and chemotherapy-induced nausea. But it found “inadequate information” to support or refute effects on Parkinson’s disease.
Yet those who find that medical marijuana helps them can become fierce advocates no matter what their doctors say.
Caryl Barrett, a 54-year-old who lives in Georgia, said she decided to travel out of state to Colorado to treat her pain from her transverse myelitis and the autoimmune disease neurosarcoidosis.
“I realized it worked and I decided to bring it back with me,” she said. “I broke federal law.”
Georgia, meanwhile, permitted limited medicinal use of marijuana but did not set up dispensaries. As a result, patients resort to ordering it online or driving to another state to get it.
The conflict in the law makes her uneasy. But Barrett, who had been on opioids for a decade, said she feels so strongly about it working that “if someone wants to arrest me, bring it on.”
Others experience mixed results.
Melodie Beckham, who had metastatic lung cancer, tried medical marijuana for 13 days in a clinical trial at Connecticut Hospice before deciding to quit.
“She was hopeful that it would help her relax and just kind of enjoy those days,” said her daughter, Laura Beckham.
Instead, it seemed to make her mother, who died in July at age 69, “a little more agitated or more paranoid.”
The marijuana “didn’t seem effective,” nor did it keep her mother from hitting her pain pump to get extra doses of an opioid, her daughter said.
The researchers running the trial at Connecticut Hospice spent two years getting necessary approvals from the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the DEA.
Started in May, the trial has enrolled only seven of the 66 patients it plans to sign up because many patients were too sick, too close to death or simply couldn’t swallow the pills. So far, the trial has shown “mixed results,” said James Prota, director of pharmacy for the hospice.
Researchers point out they are still exploring the basics when it comes to marijuana’s effects on older adults or the terminally ill.
“We just have no data on how many older adults are using medical marijuana, what they are using it for and most importantly what are the outcomes,” said Brian Kaskie, a professor at the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health. “It’s all anecdotal.”
Kaskie, who specializes in public policy and the aging, received grants from the state of Colorado and the Chicago-based Retirement Research Foundation to survey the use of medical marijuana by older Americans.
In many quarters, there’s a growing appetite for solid information, he said.
“When I first started this, my colleagues joked we were going to find all the aging hippies who listen to the Grateful Dead,” said Kaskie, who has been studying medicinal marijuana for years. “Now, they’re starting to realize this is a legitimate area of research.”
Twenty researchers received marijuana from the federal program last year, which was more than any previous year since 2010, according to NIDA statistics.
NIH, however, continues to funnel much of its funding into studying the adverse effects of marijuana, researchers said.
Although NIH acknowledged in one of the announcements that some research supports “possible benefits” of marijuana, it emphasized “there have not been adequate large controlled trials to support these claims.”
KHN’s coverage of end-of-life and serious illness issues is supported in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.