Life After 50…With Cannabis
As Virginia inches toward decriminalization, Boomers and Xers are trying weed and CBD products as an alternative to Big Pharma.
I was 65 the first time I got high on marijuana.
Sure, I smoked pot a couple of times in college, but never felt the promised buzz. Today’s weed, however, is much stronger than yesteryear’s, I’d heard. So, when I had the chance, I lit up a half-smoked roach, inhaled twice and dropped insensate onto my couch to enjoy a celestial high.
Now, I turn to pot and CBD products to feel better. Instead of popping Xanax when I spiral with anxiety, I squeeze a drop of THC tincture under my tongue. When my arthritic hands swell, I massage them with CBD salve. And rather than swallowing Ambien to crash into an eight-hour coma, I nibble a corner of a weed gummy and drift sweetly into sleep.
I’m in good company. As a wave of states legalize marijuana use, studies show seniors are the fastest-growing consumer segment for cannabinoids, principally the high-inducing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and the pain/anxiety-reducing, nonintoxicating cannabidiol (CBD). University of Colorado researchers, who crunched numbers from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, reported that the ranks of cannabis users over age 65 have increased 10-fold compared with the same study in previous years.
Seniors, like my Northern Virginia friends and me, turn to cannabinoids to fight the pain, disease and indignities of old age—inflamed joints, sleeplessness, anxiety, nausea from chemotherapy, glaucoma, even Alzheimer’s disease.
So do folks who have only recently become eligible for AARP membership. Sacha Cohen, a 50-year-old Arlington resident, uses CBD gummies to fight foot pain, hot flashes and anxiety. “When I’m feeling stressed out, CBD can smooth things out,” she says.
Jenn Michelle Pedini, an executive at Richmond-based Virginia NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), thinks the swell of older cannabis users is both logical and ironic. “Seniors have the longest history of using marijuana” (many having had their first puff of it in the ’60s), Pedini says. “And now that it’s legally available, they’re turning to cannabis products as a safer alternative to prescription drugs.”
Now let’s be clear: Since marijuana is federally classified as a schedule 1 drug, rigorous studies on the risks and benefits of the plant have been hard to conduct. One recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine said, “Research is needed to understand the effects of long-term cannabis use in older adults,” which could include “cognitive changes, falls, and interactions with prescription medications.”
Further, when Pedini says “legally available,” she’s not talking about here in Virginia. While Maryland and Washington, D.C., are accepting marijuana to varying degrees for medical and recreational use, weed is still technically illegal in the Commonwealth.
But local law enforcement doesn’t spend a lot of time busting or prosecuting people for marijuana possession.
That’s one reason some older adults are turning to cannabis for more than relief from aches and pains. Seniors, like everybody else, enjoy getting buzzed. And instead of chilling out with three fingers of scotch or a couple of Percocets left over from knee surgery or a face-lift, a growing number are using weed.
Keith Stroup, the 75-year-old founder of NORML, has been a connoisseur for most of his adult life.
“Don’t get the impression that older smokers are only smoking for medical purposes,” says Stroup, who lives in Falls Church. “Many, like me, just enjoy getting high.”
I know a 50-year-old woman in McLean—let’s call her Sharon—who’s been battling multiple sclerosis since she was 35.
For 13 years, Sharon depended on “a shoebox” of prescription drugs to manage her MS symptoms, which included up to 10 knockout seizures a day. To mute the medicines’ side effects, she took another pile of pills, which had side effects of their own. “I felt drugged all the time, easily agitated, unmotivated and sad,” she says.
Fearing a seizure or anxiety attack in public, Sharon stopped attending events at her kids’ school (she’s a mom of two) and sporting events and just about everything else she loved. Ultimately, she became a shut-in thinking of suicide.“I used to be so outgoing, the life of the party,” she says. “But I became emaciated, literally a shadow of myself. I didn’t want to live anymore. And I knew I had to get off the drugs.”
Two years ago, Sharon told her neurologist she was done with Big Pharma. She wanted to combat her disease with marijuana, which she had smoked for decades but gave up when the seizures began. “The whole time I was going through my seizures, I didn’t smoke at all,” she says. “I think that was part of the problem.”
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which reviewed 10,000 scientific abstracts about the health effects of marijuana, concluded in 2017 that cannabinoids can help alleviate multiple sclerosis-related muscle spasms.
Combating MS with weed was worth a try, Sharon thought. Her neurologist, who is based in D.C., agreed and offered to write her a recommendation for medical marijuana. But because Sharon lives in Virginia, she was not able to act on that recommendation. So, when she returned home, she called a “friend” and said, “Give me some pot.”
Today, Sharon relieves her MS symptoms with a grab bag of THC and CBD products. She smokes marijuana to combat seizures and sleep soundly, drops CBD oil under her tongue to fight inflammation, smokes Pure Hemp sticks to calm down and rubs THC oil into her shoulders to increase range of motion.
“I feel like a million bucks,” says Sharon, who looks like a million bucks, too. Her slender body is tanned and yoga-toned; freckles dot her nose and cheeks; and her green eyes sparkle with fun.
“I’m driving again. I have parties. I’m exercising. I am living better through no Big-Pharma chemistry.”
Matthew Mintz isn’t surprised. A Bethesda-based, board-certified internist, he recommends cannabinoids to treat many of the ailments that plague his older patients.
“As a medicine, cannabis has a very big safety/efficacy profile,” Mintz says. “It’s very easy to overdose and die on narcotics. But you cannot die from a cannabis overdose.”
Mintz, who is certified in Maryland and D.C. to “recommend medical cannabis,” doesn’t think smoking anything is healthy. And recent headlines tying vaping to an outbreak of severe respiratory illnesses have raised questions about the safety of vaping THC or CBD oils. He recommends marijuana capsules, concentrates and edibles—remedies that bypass the lungs—for seniors suffering pain, anxiety and insomnia.
“Why would I give an 85-year-old woman a prescription for Ambien, when medical cannabis is just as, or more effective?” Mintz says. Long-term Ambien use can cause digestive problems, chronic fatigue and headaches. “If you take Advil or Aleve for pain, you can get bleeding ulcers and strokes. Cannabis helps very well with aches and pains, and it doesn’t have those toxicities.”
Plus, cannabis has few negative interactions with other medicines, he says, and seniors typically take a raft of pills with their morning OJ. “Canna is safe and effective. I think it’s a very good option, especially for seniors.”
Mintz is also a fan of CBD products, which are nonintoxicating and were recently legalized by the 2018 federal farm bill, to treat certain maladies that come with aging. Today, you see CBD gummies, drops and drinks in chain drugstores, Bed Bath & Beyond, and even The Organic Butcher in McLean, which sells drinkable CBD shots next to its bison burgers.
One problem with CBD, though, is that it’s not regulated. Consumers generally can’t know how much CBD, if any, is in the products they’re buying. A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that “nearly 70 percent of all cannabidiol products sold online are either over or under labeled.” Thirteen of the 84 products tested contained more THC than the legal trace amounts.
In December 2019, Northern Virginia’s first medical marijuana operation will open in Manassas, one of five that the state legislature OK’d throughout Virginia in 2018.
Until then, local seniors are scoring weed any way we can. We’re hitting up friends, paying dealers, even smuggling home THC products in suitcases after visiting Las Vegas and Denver, where recreational marijuana use is legal.
We’re also crossing the Potomac and buying it in D.C., which has a burgeoning “gray market” for marijuana. It’s sold by pop-up vendors and stores that “gift” you a baggie of weed when you pay $40 for, say, a T-shirt.
CBD, meanwhile, is everywhere, now. But before cannabinoids became widely available, District Hemp Botanicals in Manassas, which opened in 2017, was the best-known place in the area to buy CBD products. Today, the business has expanded to sites in Leesburg and Dupont Circle.
District Hemp’s newly opened store on Connecticut Avenue in the District looks more like a salon than a head shop. Rough-hewn wood floors and exposed brick walls support freestanding shelves stocked with orderly displays of hemp honeys, teas and gummies. A chalkboard sign labeled “Staff Favorite” hovers over a raw-paper pouch of Brothers Apothecary Golden Milk, a coconut-turmeric-ginger drink with an advertised CBD content of 201 mg. Other shelves display CBD topicals, edibles and pet products.
District Hemp customers—30 to 40 percent of whom are seniors—“don’t want to see bongs everywhere,” says owner Barbara Biddle, 26. “I wanted to create an environment that’s comfortable for everybody.”
Biddle says senior first-timers ask a lot of questions. Their gateway CBD product typically is a $30 jar of Livity Salve, a lemon-scented balm with 200 mg of CBD that claims to benefit everything from pain to acne. From there, converts progress to CBD oils, edibles and capsules, spending $50 or more each shopping trip. “Some people like to stock up,” Biddle says.
Keith Stroup’s white hair falls softly to the shoulders of his navy-blue blazer, which he pairs with a white shirt, floral tie and jeans for our interview in his home office in a leafy part of Falls Church. I’m here to talk with the NORML founder about the risks seniors take buying and using marijuana in states like Virginia, where weed is still illegal.
Stroup happily—almost gleefully—recounts the time he was busted for marijuana possession when he was a young man of 64. He had been attending the Boston Freedom rally to protest marijuana prohibition when he and a pal, High Times magazine editor Rick Cusick, ducked behind their trade booth and shared a joint.
“Halfway through, two guys—undercover cops—come running down the hill. We’re old guys, both white-haired. But one grabbed me by the collar, the other one grabbed Rick, and they took us to a booking tent. Then they saw our badges and realized we’re rally speakers.”
What the undercover officers didn’t realize was they had collared two world-famous cannabis activists with a battalion of lawyers at their disposal and a flare for drama. A bench judge told the codgers to pay a fine and move along. An assignment judge said forget the fine, dismiss the charges and please go away.
But Butch and Sundance wanted a jury trial with its attendant publicity. They got it, and were ultimately convicted of possession. Their sentence was no jail, no fine, no probation—no punishment. Within a year, Massachusetts decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot in 2008.
Today, Stroup is more discreet when he smokes weed.
“None of us wants to go to jail. And Virginia is still a state that takes a fairly harsh view of marijuana offenses,” he says.
Virginia, in fact, is in a dither about marijuana. As more and more states decriminalize or legalize its use, Virginia’s GOP-controlled legislature has grown hesitant to throw marijuana users in jail.
But the legislature isn’t in the business of giving up power. And its Courts of Justice committees want to maintain prosecutorial rights, the biggest obstacle between Virginians and legal pot, says NORML’s Pedini. “These criminal reform bills die along party lines,” Pedini says.
As of this printing, first-time marijuana possession offenders in Virginia can be sentenced to up to 30 days in jail and hit with up to a $500 fine. Repeat offenders can pull up to a year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.
Virginia, however, has begun the long crawl toward marijuana legalization, which typically starts with decriminalization, then grudgingly accepts some medical marijuana regulation, and eventually concedes to recreational use.
State Sen. Adam Ebbin, a Democrat who represents parts of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties, has sponsored decriminalization bills in the Virginia General Assembly for the last five years. In June, state Attorney General Mark Herring said Virginia should “work” toward legalizing adult marijuana use.
Although the state hasn’t officially decriminalized marijuana possession, Arlington County police are loath to arrest seniors or anyone else for possession, unless it’s found while investigating a larger crime.
“Marijuana possession, regardless of the age of the individual, is not a priority enforcement measure of the Arlington County Police Department,” Ashley Savage, a public information officer for Arlington County Police, said in a statement.
That’s a change since 2018, when Arlington County arrests for marijuana possession included 14 people ages 50 to 60, and four people ages 61 to 70, according to statistics obtained by Arlington Magazine via a Freedom of Information request.
When the first medical marijuana facilities open in Virginia in December, seniors who obtain a doctor’s prescription will have an “affirmative defense” for possessing medical cannabis oil containing THC. That means if you’re arrested for possession and have a valid prescription, the judge can dismiss your case. It’s not decriminalization or legalization, but it’s a step.
Stroup hopes he lives long enough to see Virginia and the rest of the nation end marijuana prohibition. It’s about personal freedom, he says. For many seniors, it’s about more.
After our interview, Stroup sent me an email to clarify why, in his view, seniors are going to pot.
“Just did not want to leave the impression that older smokers are only smoking for medical purposes,” he wrote. Marijuana “makes life generally more vivid and alive. Food tastes better. Music sounds better. Sex seems more satisfying.”
Retirees often have “time on their hands,” Stroup added, and fill it with walking the dog, weeding the garden or pounding a golf course.
“These mundane activities are far more enjoyable when one is high.”
Lisa Kaplan Gordon is a freelance writer living in McLean.