Resources for Patients

Seniors’ cautious-yet-eager embrace of medical marijuana

WALNUT CREEK — At first glance, the monthly meeting of the Rossmoor Medical Marijuana Education and Support Club looks like many of the 200 other clubs within this community of 10,000, most 55 or older.

The club is Rossmoor’s second-largest, as measured by its 600 email followers, behind only the Democrats of Rossmoor. And aside from the table at the back of the room with a spread of marijuana-related pamphlets, and the medical professionals up front talking about various aspects of medical cannabis, it could be any (rather large) Rossmoor meeting where residents’ walkers line the aisles between the seats. Seniors, and some adult children and/or caretakers, were asking lots of questions about how pot can relieve maladies ranging from aches and pains to cancer, its various forms and ways to take it.

It is clear this isn’t your father’s senior club. But increasingly, it is your grandfather’s club.

This June 13 gathering of 200 or so people couldn’t have been more different in tenor, attitude and air quality than the smoky, in-your-face celebrations by the ash-flashing architects of Proposition 215, which in 1996 made the use of medical cannabis legal in California. The Rossmoor meeting was all sober curiosity and fact-finding, with pinches of skepticism and hope.

Renee Lee, the Rossmoor medical marijuana club’s president, said old taboos about marijuana are dissolving, gradually but inevitably, among seniors.

“This isn’t a pot party; we want alternatives,” said Lee, 65, who recently started using medical cannabis again herself to help deal with lingering effects of brain cancer surgery in 2005. “They know about opiates and the dangers of other pharmaceuticals. They’re buying into the idea of cannabis; we’re having the conversations.”

Maria Mangini, PhD, a Family Nurse Practitioner, and Dr. Frank Lucido, answer questions during the Rossmoor Medical Marijuana Education and Support Club meeting in Walnut Creek. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

Ellen Komp, deputy director of California NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), said more and more seniors are contacting her nonprofit’s representatives, mostly at public events.

“They’re very interested in non-smoking delivery options, like salves or transdermal patches for pain,” Komp said. “Their caretakers contact us about the use for Alzheimer’s, which has some promising studies behind it.”

Anita Mataraso, a member of the Rossmoor club from its inception and now its program director, said cannabis is tailor-made to help treat ailments common to seniors, including insomnia, reduced appetite, arthritis pain and the everyday aches even healthy seniors suffer. It also offers relief for more serious conditions, she said, like hers.

“I’m grateful every night for this plant and the relief I get from it,” said Mataraso, 72, who first used medical cannabis to help fight the symptoms of Lyme disease, which she contracted in 1990. The lingering nerve damage and fibromyalgia prompt her to use a tincture (drops placed under the tongue) at night.

The 20 people who formed the Rossmoor club in 2011 kept a low profile at first. But the club has long since become a visible presence in Walnut Creek and beyond, widely acknowledged as the state’s second-largest group of seniors embracing (or curious about) medical marijuana.

The largest is Laguna Woods in Southern California, a retirement community of 16,000 and home not only to a medical cannabis club but to the Laguna Woods Medical Cannabis Collective, which buys several strains of cannabis from a Humboldt County grower for distribution to its senior members. Free delivery happens thrice weekly.

“Slowly, people have become aware that (cannabis) can be a medicine, and seniors are looking for something safe,” said Lonnie Painter, head of the Laguna Woods Medical Cannabis Club, which he described as “educational.”

The National Council on Aging says about 92 percent of Americans at least 65 years old have at least one chronic disease, and 77 percent at least two.

“Seniors have more complex issues than younger adults, including with mixing medications,” said Barbara Blaser, clinical director of Magnolia Wellness, an Oakland-based dispensary and wellness services nonprofit. If cannabis can simplify that regimen, she said, many seniors will try it; she, too, cited concern about using opiates and other pharmaceuticals, especially in light of the national opioid epidemic.

A large group of residents at a Walnut Creek community for people 55 and older listens to a June 1 presentation about medical marijuana. The meeting at the Rossmoor community was held for people who wanted to learn about cannabis as an alternative to opiates and other medications. The Medical Marijuana Education and Support Club has over 600 people on their email list and is the second largest club in Rossmoor. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

People 65 and older are also an expanding demographic. They were 12.4 percent of the U.S. population in 2000 and about 13 percent in 2010; that number is expected to hit almost 20 percent by 2030, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Social mores are changing, too. If someone who was 70 years old in 1970 saw pot as a harmful intoxicant and warned his or her children of its evils, a 70-year-old in 2017 was in his or her 20s in 1970, and may well have tried pot themselves, despite parental warnings.

“They’re not dead-set against (marijuana); they know it didn’t hurt them before, and they’re interested in seeing what it can do for them,” said Dr. Frank Lucido, a Berkeley-based physician who runs what he calls a “cannabis doctor’s office.”

Joyce Curry of Rossmoor said she smoked pot as a young woman in Berkeley, and has seen it help a friend with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, and another with arthritis. She said the Rossmoor medical cannabis meetings have helped her “know what to ask” about it should she want to use it medically, and appreciates the information.

“Older people are challenged by health issues, and we’re willing to try new things,” said Curry, 76.

There also are limits to what many will try. While the psychoactivity from THC in marijuana offers its own form of relief, many seniors want to avoid that, and other aspects of cannabis.

“They don’t want to smoke, they don’t want to get high, and they don’t want to go through the (Caldecott) tunnel to Oakland” and the medical dispensaries there, Lee said.

Encouraging to many seniors are the myriad options for using cannabis without smoking it, including topical ointments, drinks, softgels and tinctures, as well as various devices to deliver the cannabis, including vapor pens.

One can also use cannabis and avoid virtually all of the “high.” While THC is psychoactive, other cannabinoids in the same plant are not. One in particular, CBD, has several medicinal properties and can help offset some of THC’s less desirable side-effects, like paranoia, for some users.

Said Mataraso, “Although I enjoy the relief I feel from THC, it is CBD that has been a game changer for me.”

“You can separate the THC from the CBD, and there are options for how much of each you can take,” said Howard Perofsky, a wellness consultant with Octavia Wellness in Oakland, which sells medical cannabis-related products, with an emphasis on the seniors market.

Registered Nurse Barbara Blaser, the Director of the Clinical Services for Oakland’s Magnolia Wellness cannabis dispensary is photographed while being interviewed after a Rossmoor Medical Marijuana Education and Support Club meeting in Walnut Creek. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

Most Rossmoor residents get their products delivered from dispensaries in Alameda County, Lee said, and others belong to cooperative delivery services based in Contra Costa County. That most towns and cities in Contra Costa County have banned local dispensaries is a concern, said Lee, whose club is fighting such efforts.

Assisted-care homes and similar facilities are starting to grapple with how to best serve their residents, many of whom either take some form of cannabis now, or could probably benefit from it. They are hamstrung by prescription regulations and, sometimes, by out-of-state owners from states that haven’t legalized medical marijuana.

Administrators at Lakeside Park, an Oakland dementia and Alzheimer’s care facility with about 70 residents, will host a discussion Aug. 17 about medical marijuana’s place among its patients. The talk, while aimed at family and caretakers of Lakeside residents, is open to the public (call 510-444-4684 to RSVP).

“In the land of assisted living, every medication must be signed off by an M.D.” said Cheryl Martin, Lakeside’s executive director. Doctors can’t prescribe marijuana, but they can recommend therapy involving cannabis. Other questions remain, too, she said. “But we need to have the conversations here.”

At the June 13 Rossmoor meeting, Lucido and nurse practitioner/colleague Maria Mangini spent almost an hour answering questions about whether cannabis is effective as an ointment (yes, they said, especially for problems close to the skin or near joints), whether it helps fight cancer (it shows promise with some types of the disease but don’t expect miracles) and whether it can help insomnia (indeed).

An 88-year-old retired doctor, who wouldn’t give his name, left that meeting with questions. The speakers talked too fast, he said, and a lack of a PowerPoint or other visuals hurt the presentation. But he was impressed with what he did glean; “Those people seem to know what they’re talking about.”

His attitude toward cannabis, he said, has changed. Twenty years ago, he said, “it was something illicit that didn’t have a (legitimate) purpose. … I think I see it differently now.”


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