Medical Marijuana for Seniors: Weighing the Risks, Benefits and Out-of-Pocket Costs
As Americans get older, many develop age-related medical conditions, such as arthritis, sleep disorders, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, anxiety and depression. These diagnoses typically come with prescriptions for drugs that can bear hefty price tags and cause bothersome side effects. Many seniors wonder if there are better treatment options available and begin researching natural and alternative approaches to managing their symptoms. This is how countless older adults discover the medicinal potential of marijuana and its many different compounds called cannabinoids.
Therapeutic Applications of Medical Marijuana (MMJ)
Cannabis is best known for its psychoactive properties (i.e. feeling high). The intoxicating effects of marijuana are produced by the compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—one of the more than 60 cannabinoids found in marijuana plants. Research on cannabis has singled out another compound as particularly useful in medical applications: cannabidiol (CBD). THC and CBD are both believed to have medical benefits, the difference being that CBD is non-psychoactive.
Seniors most frequently look to medical cannabis and derivatives like CBD to help manage severe pain from injuries and ailments like arthritis, diabetic neuropathy, migraines and cancer. Long-term use of traditional pain treatments like over-the-counter medications and prescription painkillers can be problematic, causing side effects and even addiction. Marijuana is not devoid of side effects, but proponents and patients claim that they are minimal compared to the risks associated with other treatment options.
In addition to pain, studies have shown that isolated CBD may be a promising treatment for wasting syndrome, muscle spasms, seizures, inflammation, sleep disorders and anxiety. The appeal of CBD products is that they can contain differing ratios of THC (or none at all), allowing consumers to reap the benefits of medical marijuana with little to no mind-altering effects. Most people associate marijuana use with smoking, but the necessity for less harmful and more targeted delivery methods has prompted the development of innovative new therapeutic applications, such as pills, oils, edibles and topical ointments.
Unfortunately, available medical research is still limited and there has been little focus on the effects of long-term use of both whole marijuana and CBD products. These substances can affect blood sugar, blood pressure and heart rate, and they can interact with other medications. Furthermore, dosing is not an exact science. Most patients use a trial-and-error approach to figure out what works best, especially since individual reactions to these products can vary. Keep in mind that many aspects of the medical marijuana industry are still largely unregulated, so the quality and contents of these products are not guaranteed either.
Where Is Medical Marijuana Legal?
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis use for adults, and a total of 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico allow for comprehensive public medical marijuana programs. However, under federal law, marijuana is technically illegal everywhere, regardless of individual state laws. Even individuals and providers who follow all state and local laws to participate in medical cannabis programs are not immune to federal laws regarding possession, cultivation and distribution.
Keep in mind that the laws in states where marijuana is legal still vary, including eligibility requirements for becoming a state-authorized medical cannabis patient. For example, some states have only approved certain health conditions for medical marijuana use, some have imposed limits on the THC content of medicinal products and many states limit the quantity that a patient may possess at any given time. This is an especially important consideration when travelling. If you have been prescribed MMJ and have cannabis in your possession, research local regulations if you intend to cross state lines.
The best way to determine if you or a loved one may be a candidate for a medical marijuana program is to contact your state’s health department or visit their government website for specific information and instructions on how to apply. As with any change to your medication regimen or treatment plan, be sure to discuss the possibility of using cannabis for therapeutic purposes with your physician(s).
Is Medical Marijuana Covered by Insurance?
Regardless of state law, medical marijuana remains an out-of-pocket expense. Because cannabis is still classified as a Schedule I drug under federal drug policy in the U.S. and there is widespread disagreement in the medical community over its safety and effectiveness, no insurance companies currently provide coverage for MMJ. This includes Medicare, Medicaid, the VA and private health insurance.
The costs of medical marijuana vary widely, depending on the product a patient requires and where they purchase it. Many states also have different taxation policies that may pass some of the financial burden for cultivation and sales onto customers. While costs can be prohibitive, there are some programs available in certain states and municipalities to help low-income medical marijuana patients. Non-profit organizations and individual dispensaries may also be able to provide discount programs.
In June 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first cannabis-based prescription drug: Epidiolex (cannabidiol). This milestone gives hope to individuals who suffer from pain and chronic health conditions that are poorly managed through traditional pharmaceutical drug therapy. Continuing medical research and legal progress are needed to spur changes in the regulation, accessibility and coverage of marijuana-derived products.