Marijuana: Legalization and risks for older users
March 1, 2018
Yes, it’s true. In the late 1960s I illegally smoked (and inhaled!) marijuana at “pot parties.” Sometimes my drug-induced paranoia escalated wildly and I knew I was going to spend my squandered youth in prison. Happily, toward the end of that period of my life I ended up with a college degree rather than a prison sentence.
Now marijuana is legal in Alaska and many other states, although the legal situation remains a bit muddy at the federal level. However, the new ease of access to marijuana has special significance for older persons in Alaska and elsewhere, but first a little background. Here are the highlights in Alaska (as of February 2018):
- you must be 21 years old to use marijuana products, and it is illegal to give marijuana to minors
- the law bans all public use of any marijuana, not just smoking
- you cannot use marijuana while operating any motorized vehicle
- adults age 21 and over can possess, grow, and give away as many as six marijuana plants (but only three of the plants can be mature and flowering at any one time)
- you can buy marijuana products at any licensed retail shop, but it is illegal to leave Alaska with marijuana products
The first marijuana retail store in Alaska opened November 2016. There are now 52 retail marijuana stores in Alaska as of this writing, and 162 active and operating licenses. Potentially these licenses could become additional retail marijuana stores, and there is a steady stream of new applications. In short, marijuana is now widely and legally available in Alaska and elsewhere.
Seniors appear to be cozying up to Mary Jane in record numbers. A national study found that in terms of “past year cannabis use” the 50-plus age group is the fastest growing of all age groups. In 2002 approximately 1 percent of seniors reported “past year cannabis use,” but by 2014 the percentage had climbed to 5 percent. However, before you light up or eat the magic brownie, there are a few issues seniors in particular may want to consider.
The marijuana of today is much stronger than marijuana decades ago. Beginning in the 1990s growers bred marijuana to have a higher percentage of THC -- the primary psychoactive component used to measure potency. Historically the THC content of marijuana in the joints and cookies of our youth was 0.5 percent to 5 percent THC. However, a recent study in the state of Washington found that in recreational marijuana the average amount of THC was 16 percent. Hash oil can range up to 80 percent THC. So, if you are thinking of toking or eating, take it slowly.
Adverse pharmacologic actions of marijuana can be quite dramatic, even dangerous, if you ingest too much or mix it with alcohol or an extensive list of prescription drugs. Since older people are more likely to be taking a variety of prescription medications and more likely to have various medical issues, we elders are at higher risk when marijuana is added to the equation. Some of the more common consequences include:
- generalized central nervous system depression
- memory impairment
- diminished coordination (thereby increasing the risk of falls)
- extreme confusion, anxiety, panic or paranoia
- fast heart rate
- increased blood pressure
- hallucinations or delusions
- severe nausea and vomiting
On the other hand, the National Academy of Sciences reports that there is “conclusive or substantive” evidence that marijuana or its byproducts have therapeutic value to treat a number of medical conditions. These include chronic pain in adults, multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms, and chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. In addition, marijuana improves sleep for persons with various kinds of sleep disturbances.
Keep away from kids
However, our grandchildren may be bearing a significant risk from accidental over-dosing of marijuana. A national study was conducted of nearly 2,000 children whose cases were found in the National Poison Data System during the period 2000 to 2013. Children under six years of age who live in states where marijuana has been legalized are five times more likely to be “exposed” to marijuana compared to children in states where it is not legal. On average these children were just under two years of age. Seventy-five percent of them “ingested” marijuana products, and nearly 19 percent of them required admission to a medical facility.
Most interestingly, this study found that the majority of these “exposures” to marijuana did not occur where the children lived. A reasonable assumption is that many of these children are getting into their grandparents’ marijuana-infused pastries and candies casually left out in a house where children are usually not present. The takeaway message here is to secure your marijuana products away from the reach of curious grandchildren and other little hands.
For more information, call the office of the Division of Public Health (907) 465-3090, or visit Alaska’s marijuana information website: http://www.dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Director/Pages/marijuana.
Lawrence D. Weiss is a UAA Professor of Public Health, Emeritus, creator of the UAA Master of Public Health program, and author of several books and numerous articles.