No age group in Canada is adopting cannabis faster than seniors. Since 2012, the percentage of Canadians 65 and over that reported using cannabis increased from one per cent to 10 per cent. According to Statistics Canada’s fall 2019 data, more than a quarter of the 400,000 seniors surveyed who said they used cannabis in 2019 were first time users.
But despite the growth, seniors remain the least likely age group in Canada to use cannabis. There are several reasons for that, says Sherry Bennett, the founder of Let’s Talk Cannabis, a website and education campaign. “For their whole lives, they’ve been told that cannabis is bad,” she says. “They’re not going to change their minds overnight.”
Bennett also runs Bayview Concierge, a company that helps seniors with everyday tasks in the suburbs of Toronto. As someone who works with seniors on a daily basis, she saw the need for unbiased education to help them understand more about the drug. “Cannabis holds a lot of promise for seniors. Maybe more than for any other age group,” she says. “But there are also reasons to be cautious.” When researchers in Israel followed 3,000 new cannabis clinic patients who were 65 years and older, they found cannabis was not only safe for seniors, it also decreased the use of prescription medicines, including opioids.
After six months the study found 94 per cent of patients reported an improvement in their condition, and participants noted a significant reduction in reported falls. But, as with any drug, there are potential side effects and contraindications. That’s particularly a concern for seniors who often rely on multiple medications. Cannabis is known to impact blood pressure, memory, and alertness. And Health Canada has warned doctors that certain antidepressants, heartburn drugs, and antibiotics slow the liver’s ability to break down THC, leading to higher than anticipated doses. To better understand these risks, two studies are underway in Ontario long term care facilities to track seniors who use medical marijuana.
A bigger roadblock that’s preventing broader adoption might be consumption methods. Seniors often avoid sugary products and smoking due to other health concerns. Bennett says smoking or eating cannabis brownies will always be a hard sell. Seniors are more likely to adopt oils, creams, and patches, which work well for treating muscle pain and skin issues; they only affect the area where they’re applied and, because they’re not absorbed into the blood stream, are less likely to interfere with other medication. Capsules and concentrated tinctures are familiar, easy to dose, and discrete options. “I think as the science becomes more robust and the idea that cannabis is legal settles in, we’ll continue to see more and more seniors giving it a try,” Bennett says. “Right now, we just need to keep the dialogue open and honest.”