The bright, orange and pink lobby of Stapleton’s Balfour Senior Living Center had begun to fill up. Silver haired residents shuffled in slowly, some with walkers, some with canes, others carrying nothing but notepads and pencils. Excited whispers drifted through their midst, smooth jazz floating from some unseen speaker. If I didn’t know any better, I might have thought I had wandered into Balfour’s bingo night… But these seniors weren’t here for bouncing balls and bingo calls. No. They were here to expand their minds and learn all about the many medicinal properties of marijuana.
Senior citizens and pot are not two things people often associate together. And indeed, this “Cannabis 101” course for seniors is the first of its kind anywhere in America. Balfour Senior Living, Holos Health (a Colorado holistic medicine organization) and Stratos cannabis products teamed up to put this singularly progressive event together. They recognized a clear gap between the world of medicinal marijuana products and the senior population. A gap that kept natural, holistic medicine from some of the people who need it most — a gap that these seminars aimed to bridge.
When Stratos first approached Balfour with the idea, they had originally planned to do only one of these “Cannabis 101” courses. But the initial public response was so massive they realized they would need more, and decided instead to run four. The first few had been standing room only — with well over 100 people in attendance. This was the fourth and final session of the summer, and it was shaping up to be their smallest so far.
Even still, seating in the room grew scarce as the audience trickled in. And it wasn’t just Balfour’s senior community filling those seats — curious middle-aged couples and groups of friends, interested individuals and at least one father and son were all seated like college students patiently waiting for their lecture to begin…
Dr. Sarah Berke, a clinician and MD with well over twenty years in medicine under her belt, now working with Holos Health, took to the stage promptly at 4:00. And as she did, pencils all around the room perked up and the buzzing audience quickly quieted.
Class was in session.
What followed was an incredibly informative, highly professional and scientific breakdown of the benefits and potential medicinal applications of cannabis and cannabis products. It covered everything: from the endocannabinoid system, to delivery methods, micro-dosing instructions, CBD v. THC and the medical applications for both. She talked about the munchies, touched on dabbing, bongs, and hash, and offered this clever memory trick for the difference between indica and sativa strains:
“A lot of people remember it this way: when you smoke indicas, you get stuck in-da-couch.” She quipped, to a roomful of hushed chuckles.
As Dr. Berke flipped through her slideshow, explaining pie charts, reading off statistics and technical information, describing pot’s ability to treat chronic pain, inflammation, insomnia, autoimmune disorders, seizure disorders, cancer and even neuro degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, a very heavy truth began to take shape:
Cannabis is, for all intents and purposes, is a miraculous drug. The spectrum of health issues that it can help to treat is oceanic — the medicinal applications, unequivocally vast. It is a natural plant (not some addictive chemical amalgamation concocted in a lab), it is extremely safe to use, has minimal side effects, can be grown right at home, organically, and on top of all that, it is recreationally pretty fun. It’s no wonder big pharma is so threatened by the legalization of this drug. Why would their patients continue paying for separate pain meds, sleep meds, anti-anxiety meds and anticonvulsant meds when they could potentially replace all of those with a single, holistic substance that comes from a flower?
“I use [marijuana] topically,” One Balfour resident confided, as class adjourned for drinks and snacks, “And I’ve tried ingesting it, too. For my inflammatory arthritis. At this point in my life I’m more interested in the medicinal side of it, and it’s really helped quite a lot.”
These seniors, and seniors everywhere in America, are one of the most profitable demographics for pharmaceutical companies. They account for around 34% of healthcare related spending in the US, and if word gets out that cannabis is an alternative answer to many of their health-related issues, pharmaceutical companies could lose a lot of business. And considering this industry spent almost $249 million lobbying the federal government in 2016, and another $11 million in campaign contributions the same year, it makes sense why the feds are doing their part to keep marijuana on America’s list of illegal ‘Schedule 1’ drugs — right up there with meth and heroine.
That is a serious hurdle in getting cannabis information to senior citizens. Because no health professional in any way connected with the federal government (including speech pathologists, doctors, nurses, elderly caregivers, or physical therapists) is allowed to suggest, or even mention cannabis as an alternative treatment — they are prohibited by law to do so, even in instances where they know it would benefit their patient.
“I have a twelve-year-old patient,” Dr. Berke told me, once the curious crowd of seniors began to dissipate and I finally had a moment to speak with her, “who has such tremendous spasms on the intrinsic muscles of his larynx, it is such a severe stutter, he literally can’t talk — he takes a little THC, and this child starts talking. It is unbelievable. And time and again the speech pathologist notices the difference.”
Beyond federal legality and strict regulation, though, there is yet another hitch in getting seniors to accept cannabis as a valuable medication. Many of these people grew up in an era of “Reefer Madness”-type anti-marijuana propaganda. When I asked Dr. Berke about this, she pulled me aside, out of ear-shot of her students, to answer.
“The older population is absolutely terrified of the psychoactive side of it.” She said, referring to the ‘high’ one feels from using THC. “Even if they’re open to trying other cannabinoids.”
She described one of her Parkinson’s patients, an older woman who was using CBD (a highly therapeutic, though non-psychoactive cannabinoid) to treat her tremors. Dr. Berke was adamant that a little THCa (an antispasmodic cannabinoid, that does have psychoactive effects) would help reduce her symptoms to an exponential degree. But the patient refused time and again to try THCa because she was afraid of the high she would feel.
And that’s to be expected. These folks have been conditioned their entire lives to understand pot as a dangerous drug for criminals and under-achievers. Changing that kind of pre-conception isn’t easy… But these “Cannabis 101” courses are undoubtedly already playing a decisive role in achieving that goal — helping to undo the misconceptions of marijuana.
Balfour, Holos and Stratos are certainly planning on bringing these classes back. But, they acknowledge that it is unlikely they’ll be the only ones doing it in the future.
“This is the first [Cannabis 101 course for seniors] in the nation,” said Lindsay Mitchell, Balfour’s Corporate Communications Director, “But we expect a lot of people to start copying us.”
Which might prove to be that final push pot has always needed. For years it has largely been the youth — hippies, Rasta’s, beatniks, heads, students and artists — advocating for the legalization of marijuana. Demographics our government tends to disregard. But, should classes like this “Cannabis 101” course become commonplace in senior homes across America, should the truth about this wonder drug get out to the elderly, and should those seniors start standing up to demand legal cannabis, perhaps the federal government will finally soften its position.