Based on the recent cultural history of the United States, one might assume that senior citizens have little to no interest in cannabis. After all, nearly everyone now alive in this country was born under the strict legal prohibition of cannabis, and in many parts of the country, it’s still considered socially questionable (not to mention legally prohibited).
So it may come as a surprise that seniors, in fact, represent the fastest-growing segment of cannabis users, by a healthy margin. Since 2006, the number of cannabis users 65 and up increased by a stunning 250 percent.
By and large, their interest in cannabis is therapeutic in nature. Research—not to mention millennia of anecdotal evidence—shows that cannabis is effective at treating two of seniors’ critical medical concerns: chronic pain and insomnia. And early studies on more serious conditions such as Alzheimer’s are promising, if only in their early stages.
While these developments give seniors (and their caretakers) plenty of reasons for optimism, as with all medications, we want to inject a note of caution. Yes, cannabis is objectively safer than many commonly prescribed treatments, but there are potential risks, especially when it comes to the potential for interactions with other drugs. Let’s take a look at some top areas of concern.
Seniors and Cannabis: Can Cannabis and Drug Interactions Kill You?
In 2016, Chelsea Clinton made an alarming statement about reported drug-related deaths in Colorado. Since then, a spokesperson corrected those remarks, but they beg a deeper question: Can cannabis, in conjunction with other drugs, actually kill you?
The best answer we currently have is: potentially, but it’s highly improbable.
Cannabis by itself is non-toxic; that’s not to say people haven’t exercised poor judgment while inebriated, but it is physically impossible to take a lethal dose.
That said, cannabis appears to potentiate, or strengthen, the effects of some common medications, including benzodiazepines and muscle relaxants. This can lead to, in the words of a 2007 study, a “central nervous system depression,” which would likely be experienced as decreased heart rate and breathing, and in extreme cases unconsciousness.
Additionally, there is evidence that cannabis interacts with tricyclic antidepressants such as Elavil and Anafranil to induce delirium and rapid heart rate.
While we’re on the subject, let’s not forget about the most commonly self-administered “medication”: alcohol. While cannabis-alcohol interaction is not inherently dangerous, the combination of the two with prescription medications is cause for concern, as this adds another potentiating drug to the mix.
Seniors and Cannabis Side Effects
Of potentially greater concern are the common side effects of cannabis consumption, including a decrease of spatial awareness, short-term memory and reaction time. If you are both a senior and a motor-vehicle driver, the implications should be obvious.
As cannabis enters the medical and cultural mainstream, perhaps the most important underlying shift should be around how we categorize cannabis in the first place. Is it a pseudo-legal folk remedy? A recreational product with limited therapeutic potential? Or medicine with real and validated health benefits?
We prefer to take the latter approach, at least until such time as strong scientific evidence proves us wrong. It’s potentially pleasurable side-effects aside, let’s treat cannabis as medicine, and give it the respect it’s due by exercising caution and prudence both when there are interactions with other drugs and the potential for hazardous behavior such as driving. Seniors and cannabis use need to add in an extra layer of precaution.