Subscribe to Entrepreneur for $5

A Plea to Our Elders: Consider Medical Marijuana Before Opioids

Older Americans are both the least supportive of legal marijuana and the fastest-growing population of new cannabis users.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

America's senior citizens -- a fast-growing demographic accounting for 15 percent of the country’s population including our mothers, brothers, aunts and grandfathers -- are in significant danger.

belterz | Getty Images

Not only are seniors among our most vulnerable populations amid rising housing and healthcare costs, but their health and well-being is also deteriorating rapidly. Specific pain syndromes become more common with each passing year. As with most other demographics, physicians have been prescribing opioids to alleviate seniors’ pain for decades. And, like every other demographic, seniors risk becoming addicted to these dangerous, even deadly, opioids.

The opioid epidemic is well-documented but a safer alternative to these opioids is not. As I’ve done in many face-to-face interactions in my capacity as the founder of a pioneering marijuana topicals brand, I’m writing to encourage my elders to try cannabis as a potential replacement to their synthetic opioids. Cannabis is non-toxic, less addictive and a completely natural alternative painkiller that is medically proven to relieve pain.

It helps when I tell my senior friends that a new, first-of-its-kind peer-reviewed study recently found that “medical cannabis therapy can significantly reduce chronic pain in patients age 65 and older without adverse effects.” In fact after six months, more than 18 percent of the study’s nearly 3,000 patients surveyed had either stopped using opioids or reduced their dosage.

Even with this important research, I know this is a big ask for many seniors. For most of their lives they have been told marijuana is a life-ruining gateway drug. But times have changed, my senior citizen friends, and thankfully so has science and the prevailing medical opinions of some of the world’s most discerning health authorities.

Related: Why Are Opioid Painkillers Legal But Marijuana Isn't?

Why seniors should consider cannabis instead of opioids.

Let’s start with some basics: There is no good evidence supporting the hypothesis of marijuana as a gateway drug. Conversely, extensive recent research suggests that marijuana might be an anti-gateway drug -- or an exit drug, if you will. We’ll talk more about that shortly.

The lingering stigma surrounding cannabis use goes far beyond the gateway theory. Nonetheless, we are moving beyond prohibition-era misinformation to embrace a fact-based relationship with marijuana as medicine. And while Pew research tells us the silent generation is the only adult American demographic that doesn’t support marijuana legalization, they are also “America’s fastest-growing population of new cannabis users,” according to The New Yorker.

It helps, too, that modern cannabis use goes significantly deeper than smoking pot. Some consume marijuana via vaporizers and infused edibles, some of which are mind-altering and some of which aren’t, depending on the product’s cannabinoid content. But many others apply marijuana topicals (lotions, oils, salves and creams) directly on their skin, a nonpsychoactive application that is especially useful for localized relief in joints, muscles and specific problem areas (back, hands, etc).

And I get it, senior friends: Seeing cannabis as a medicine might go against every fiber of your being. But please keep reading.

Let’s now address the primary issue of the pain that threatens to ruin your quality of life, the pain that first drove you to your physician’s office, the pain that was the symptom for your most recent opioid prescription. Can cannabis help with this pain? 

In many cases, the answer is yes. Study after study tells us the “use of marijuana for chronic pain, neuropathic pain and spasticity due to multiple sclerosis is supported by high quality evidence” like this Harvard-led review, which published those exact findings.

Related: The Opioid Crisis Is Forcing Open Minds About the Lifesaving Potential of Medical Marijuana

Perhaps more convincingly, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released one of the most comprehensive studies on marijuana’s therapeutic potential and found “conclusive or substantial evidence that cannabis or cannabinoids are effective: for the treatment for chronic pain in adults; antiemetics in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting; and for improving patient-reported multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms.”

Both of those studies echoed the encouraging findings of a landmark review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2015, noting the “moderate-quality evidence to support the use of cannabinoids for the treatment of chronic pain and spasticity.”

Clear evidence cannabis is safe for the elderly.

So yes, today’s most trusted research suggests cannabis can help with your pain -- but how does this research relate to a senior citizen’s mind and body? Well, that peer-reviewed study I mentioned earlier, which was written by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Cannabis Clinical Research Institute at Soroka University Medical Center and published this year in The European Journal of Internal Medicine, says marijuana is a powerful, safe and effective pain medicine for aging populations, too.

As the researchers wrote: “Cannabis therapy is safe and efficacious for elderly patients who are seeking to address cancer symptoms, Parkinson's disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis and other medical issues.”

According to Professor Victor Novack, M.D., professor of medicine in the BGU Faculty of Health Sciences and head of the Soroka Cannabis Clinical Research Institute: "While older patients represent a large and growing population of medical cannabis users, few studies have addressed how it affects this particular group, which also suffers from dementia, frequent falls, mobility problems, and hearing and visual impairments. After monitoring patients 65 and older for six months, we found medical cannabis treatment significantly relieves pain and improves quality of life for seniors with minimal side effects reported."

So cannabis is a legitimate painkiller for our aging population, too -- and this is where the exit drug theory comes from. Research published in the Journal of Pain found that “cannabis use was associated with 64 percent lower opioid use in patients with chronic pain.”

More research published in journal Health Affairs “found that the use of prescription drugs for which marijuana could serve as a clinical alternative fell significantly, once a medical marijuana law was implemented.” Another study published in the Journal of Health Economics found that access to medical cannabis reduced opioid-related death rates. And yet another study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that, “Medical cannabis policies may be one mechanism that can encourage lower prescription opioid use and serve as a harm abatement tool in the opioid crisis.”

Suddenly the exit drug theory is picking up legitimacy and momentum, made all the more meaningful in light of the brand new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data telling us that more than 49,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2017, a 4.1 fold increase from 2002 numbers.

President Donald Trump last year declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, falling short of his promise to declare it a national emergency. But other public officials are speaking to the dangerous and deadly opioid crisis, including former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy, who was a member of President Trump's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. “This is no longer an opioid crisis,” said Kennedy. “This is a moral crisis . . . we know how to answer this problem, but we can't get around our own prejudices.”

I agree wholeheartedly with Kennedy, who has long been one of America’s most vocal opponents of cannabis legalization. We do know how to answer this problem, and we can’t get around our own prejudices -- though the alternative he’s referencing is medication-assisted therapies, and the alternative I’m referencing is medical cannabis.

So, to America’s treasured senior citizens, I’ll leave you all with this: Don’t listen to me. Listen to today’s most trusted and vetted science, which is telling you that, at worst, a physician-OK’d regimine of cannabis won’t hurt you -- and at best, it might even save your life.