Older Minnesotans use plenty of meds, but medical marijuana? Not so much

Rosemary Johnson uses medical marijuana pills to deal with pain
Rosemary Johnson holds up a bottle of medical marijuana pills, which she uses to deal with intractable pain.
Peter Cox | MPR News

Rosemary Johnson has three pill bottles in her refrigerator, each with different mixtures of THC and CBD — marijuana chemicals used in medicine.

Johnson, 72, suffers from lupus, Sjogren's, fibromyalgia and scoliosis. For the last year, she's participated in the state's medical marijuana program. But up until then, like many people in her age group, she'd never used marijuana.

"I don't even know if I even know what it smells like," she said. "Because I never did drugs or anything like that when I was in high school in the 60s."

According to state statistics, Johnson's age group — despite having the highest rate of prescribed drugs nationally — ranks third among regular users of medical marijuana as an age group.

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The latest statistics of active users of medical marijuana show that 32 percent of users are in the 50-64 age group; 27 percent are in the 36-49 age group; and 19 percent are in the 65-plus age group.

There's no hard data on why older users, who statistically have a higher rate of ailments, aren't using medical marijuana at the rate of their younger counterparts.

Tom Arneson, the research manager at the Minnesota Office of Medical Cannabis, said there are some barriers for that 65-plus crowd. First, the cost — medical marijuana is not covered by insurance, so it must be paid out of pocket. For people on a fixed income, that might be a limiting factor, he said. There are few retail locations, making accessibility difficult.

But Arneson believes familiarity is also a factor.

"Stigma is probably a barrier," he said. "We hear that from some people — that's something that really bothers them about participating in the program is that negative opinions from family, friends or even their health care practitioners, and I suspect that an older population might have even more sensitivity to stigma — just speculation on my part."

For Johnson, there had been stigma attached. She was unfamiliar with marijuana and saw it as a bad, illegal drug. But then she heard more about it and, as she began to feel pain from several ailments, her children talked to her about it. So, she got a prescription for it.

She's been using it for about a year, and for a time, wasn't sure how well it was working. Then her husband had rotator cuff surgery and they were unable to drive to get her prescription filled for two weeks. Without the pills, she found herself in pain.

"That's when I noticed, 'Hey this stuff is really working.' I hurt," she said. "What it does, it makes my muscles and my bones, my joints feel — for some reason I feel more comfortable. It's kind of a general feeling of wellness. It really did make a difference, I noticed."

The normalization of marijuana as a medical treatment has helped in getting many older adults to change their minds. But it's also seen as a safer alternative to an often dangerous prescription.

"The rampant over prescribing of opioids and use of opioids — take a magnifying glass to the aging population and you'll see that it's pretty extensive," said Brian Kaskie, an associate professor of health policy at the University of Iowa, where he's researched cannabis use among older persons. "And so for those people out there that see that, or may want to avoid that, or maybe the opioids just don't work for them — I think they are finding that cannabis is a viable alternative."

Use of medical marijuana is likely to grow in coming months among older Minnesotans as Alzheimer's and dementia are added to the list of qualifying conditions later this summer.

The advancing age of baby boomers is another tail wind for the medications manufacturers. Dr. Joseph Westwater, the chief executive for Minnesota Medical Solutions, one of the state's two medical marijuana companies, said that as the baby-boomer generation moves into the 65-plus age bracket, there will likely be more medical marijuana use.

"I definitely think that people who are moving into that age group, probably had an adolescent — or a young-adult experience that the previous generation didn't have, so they have some familiarity with it," he said.

Pete and Rosemary Johnson use medical marijuana to deal with pain.
Pete and Rosemary Johnson stand on the back deck of their Owatonna, Minn., home. Both use medical marijuana to help deal with painful ailments. According to state data, use of medical marijuana among those 65 and older lags behind both 36-49-year-olds and 50-64-year-olds.
Peter Cox | MPR News

That's true for Johnson's husband Pete, who is seven years younger than she is.

"When I was in college there was sometimes when you just happened to be in a room and they taped things shut and everything else, and out it comes and you can't really say, 'Excuse me I want to get out of here'" he said. "I'll smoke it. It didn't bother me a bit."

That familiarity made it an easier decision when he began to have neuropathy in his feet and hands — which causes him to lose dexterity. He uses a balm, and sometimes pill form, to deal with that.

"It's not as stiff anymore, it's more pliable. And it's nice to move the hands again," he said.