Medical Marijuana Use Remains Controversial

Although some research suggests medical marijuana can offer relief to older adults with symptoms such as sleep disorders, pain or anxiety stemming from chronic conditions including Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis, experts agree that more studies are needed.

People aged 65 and older are among the fastest growing group of cannabis users in America, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), U.S. National Library of Medicine. To date, 33 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana. Ten states also have legalized recreational use, causing some experts to be concerned about older adults who may self-treat medical problems without guidance.

“Evidence is growing in support of some indications for medical cannabis‒pain, for example‒and that needs to be weighed against side effects to which older adults may be more vulnerable, like dizziness, somnolence, confusion, and dry mouth,” said Joshua Briscoe, MD, of Duke University Medical Center. “Older adults should use caution when experimenting with medical cannabis on their own and share the details of such use with their physicians.”

A recent study, the results of which will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 71st Annual Meeting in Philadelphia this month, found that medical marijuana may be safe and effective. Additionally, results showed that one-third of study participants reduced their use of opioids. The study, involving 204 participants with an average age of 81, noted that medical marijuana, taken by mouth as a liquid extract, tincture, capsule or via electronic vaporizer, included varying ratios of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to cannabidiol (CBD), the main active chemicals in medical marijuana.  Participants’ use ranged over an average of four months during which participants underwent regular checkups.

Researchers found that 69% of participants experienced some symptom relief. Among those, the conditions most commonly improving were pain with 49% experiencing relief; sleep symptoms with 18% experiencing relief; neuropathy with 15% experiencing relief and anxiety with 10 % experiencing relief. In 32% of participants, opioid pain medication use was reduced. Side effects occurred initially in 34% of participants. Following dosage adjustments, only 21% reported side effects. The most commonly reported side effects included sleepiness, balance problems and gastrointestinal disturbances.

Despite the growing body of data indicating positive effects of medical cannabis use, mixed results have been reported, according to the NCBI. Most clinical studies have had small samples and there are few randomized controlled trials. The lack of evidence on the positive clinical effects of medical cannabis use is especially marked for older patients. If you’re considering the use of medical marijuana, discuss with your provider the potential benefits and risks associated with cannabis use.

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