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Weedbirds: How Conflicts in Colorado and Federal Marijuana Laws Turn Cannabis Consuming Seniors Into Rule Breakers

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Penelope carefully peers into the glass containers, examining the contents, while her husband, Dale, stands beside her. “This is what I use for the pain in my feet,” she said, as she shows off the sealed green plastic container holding her newly purchased Kandy Kush. “It’s better than the Hydrocodone and Percocet they had me on, which wouldn’t even allow me to play with my grandkids,” says the semi-regular Starbuds dispensary customer. She’s 67-years old.

Marijuna Seniors Mar 161 After the passing of Amendment 64 in 2012, the effect of recreational weed has been focused on youth, yet overlooked is the anxiety of many older Coloradans who still consume marijuana in secret–both for recreational and medical purposes.

According to the latest numbers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of people aged 50 and older reporting marijuana use in the prior year,  went up from 1.9 percent to 2.9 percent from 2002 to 2008.

“The rise was most dramatic among 55- to 59-year-olds, whose reported marijuana use more than tripled from 1.6 percent in 2002 to 5.1 percent,” the report said.

As Americans age, use of cannabis has increased among those categorized as baby boomers (born between 1945 and 1964). Today, 10,000 Americans turned 65, and 10,000 will turn 65 tomorrow according to Pew Research–a trend that will happen every day for the next 19 years.

“We are most definitely seeing an increase in older customers,” said Starbuds Pueblo General Manager, Peter Mutty. “Especially with those who have never been in a dispensary before; we usually see them come in with a relative or someone they trust to help guide them.”

“They have lots of questions, and we are here to help,” said Peter’s daughter and Starbuds manager, Sarah Mutty. “We see a lot of seniors with arthritis, sleep issues, menopause concerns, and of course, cancer patients.”

The average age of those who hold a medical marijuana card is gradually going up—from 40-years old in 2009, to 42.5-years old last year, with 37,791 consumers, age 51 and older, flashing a purple card, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Medical Marijuana Registry,
“There are 43 million senior citizens in this country–there will be 80 million by 2040,” said Marcie Cooper, American Cannabis Nurses Association director.

The topic of senior citizen cannabis use has become so prevalent that earlier this year scientists, academics, journalists and consumers took part in a daylong seminar entitled Seniors and Cannabis, held in Denver.

“Nursing facilities will increase from 15 to 20 million by 2050.”  According to Cooper, the average 65-69-year old is on 14 legal FDA-approved prescriptions. The average 80-84-year old takes 18 prescriptions–most commonly opiates, and those which treat depression, with side effects that include constipation, confusion, insomnia, anxiety . . . and depression. “We owe it to our elders to give them another option to improve their quality of life.”

Marijuna Seniors Mar 162Audrey, a vivacious 68-year old with a megawatt smile, is one of those seniors in a marijuana limbo who feels it improves the quality of life but is scared of the consequences of using it.

“I’ve always had a relationship with pot,” says Audrey. “I have a lot of struggles with chemical issues in my body.  Low serotonin. It (marijuana) helps me manage my serotonin levels  and helps me relax.  I don’t want to get a medical card because the whole marijuana issue hasn’t been figured out yet with the feds. Our country is in such unrest right now, with so many political challenges, I didn’t want my name in a system.”

Her husband Max, 67, agrees.

“Legalization in Colorado has allowed older consumers to come back to it, so that’s good, but it’s cheap enough on the recreational side, so that’s how we buy it.”

Max, Audrey and others spark a new debate for Pueblo–just how many seniors in the county consume and how that impacts Pueblo, which is generally considered an older, retirement home community.

Pueblo consistently ranks in the top 10 of affordable places to retire. In 2013, AARP called Pueblo “A Desert Gem,” and touted its sloppers, Thunderwolves, and low housing prices, while CNN Money hyped Pueblo with “its rich history and plenty of cultural offerings, as well as a dry climate that rarely falls below 30 degrees Fahrenheit or goes higher than 80 F.”

How many move to Pueblo for cannabis is unclear.

The Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce doesn’t keep numbers on how many seniors are relocating and retiring to the area because of cannabis.

“We don’t break down those demographics,” said Tourism Director, Donielle Gonzales. “We don’t supply seniors, or anyone else, with specific information about marijuana in Pueblo, and we don’t provide them a blueprint on where to visit about that.”

Roger, a 56-year old California transplant came to Pueblo well-before Colorado legalized recreational marijuana. For him, and many other others, marijuana at a golden age reflects a golden sensibility.

“I enjoy consuming marijuana,” he said, as he showed off his pencil thin vaporizer. “It’s a way to unwind, like anything else.  When you are a teenager it’s like ‘Oh wow I’m gonna get stoned,’ but now that I’m older, I take a hit and change the cat’s water bowl.”

This enjoyment felt by other seniors is posing unforeseen conflicts in this new frontier of weed–consuming cannabis can be at odds with receiving elder-care services such as retirement home living, Medicare and other senior services.

While Pueblo encourages visitors and newcomers, looking for a new zip code, with an almost  “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality on why they come, the city, along with federal laws, makes it nearly impossible for retirees who partake to spend their remaining years in Pueblo.

“Pueblo is my home; I want to die here,” said 77-year old Clark, brushing his thick salt and pepper hair away from his eyes. “But I worry that the older I get, I won’t be able to take my medicine if I need to go into a home,” he said as he pointed to his red and black glass pipe containing his favorite strain, Grape Ape.

Clark isn’t alone with his concerns. As more and more Pueblo cannabis consumers age, the services needed to care for them are still non-existent.  “I don’t want to be forced to go back to the pills I was taking, just because the government still thinks my weed is bad for me,” he said.

Marijuna Seniors Mar 163Pueblo elders often find themselves seeking assistance from the Joseph Edwards Senior Center, a city-owned facility managed and operated by Senior Resource Development Agency of Pueblo. But while you will find information on Meals on Wheels, nutrition services, and foster grandparents, the center has no intention of adding cannabis-related programs or services to the roster.

Evie Densford, the controller at SRDA, shows how senior services and marijuana don’t quite mix. The SRDA currently has a zero-tolerance policy inside its two housing units, Union Plaza and Richmond Senior Housing.

“We have people who come in and need their electricity turned on, or need help with dental work,” said Controller Evie Densford. “All of our programs are federally funded, so we won’t be including that [cannabis-related programs and services] with what we do.”

Those Pueblo seniors, who can afford private assistance in their later years, often find themselves in one of the nearly one dozen assisted living and nursing home facilities in town. However, the door remains shut to any resident who partakes.  Primrose, Brookside El Camino, Villa Pueblo, North Point, Chateau at Sharmar, Heatherwood, and Oakshire retirement homes all have a zero tolerance policy where they would dismiss a resident from their facilities if one is caught with marijuana.

Bonaventure representatives, who did not want to be identified, admit that while their facility is a cannabis-free environment, they have tabled any revision of that policy until there is a need to do so.

In this new West, seniors are facing unforeseen restrictions due to conflicts between federal law and funding and Colorado legalization. For many seniors, who want to consume marijuana, the law and elder-care services leave them in a state of rulebreakers, but hasn’t stopped them.

“I sneak cannabis oil capsules and salves in to my father,” said 64-year old, Cheryl, whose 87-year old father is housed in a one of the zero tolerance Pueblo retirement homes.  “I’ve seen how marijuana has helped him,” and I’m not going to take that away from him.”

Not all senior living facilities have a strict zero-tolerance policy, or these facilities are willing to bend rules for seniors who want to partake.

Representatives at Pueblo Regent were reluctant to openly publicize their cannabis policy, but admitted, “What residents do in their own private apartments is their own thing. They are allowed to smoke in general, in the privacy of their apartment; what they smoke is their own business.”

Those Pueblo seniors who need to look beyond assisted living, with end of life care, are also denied use of legal substances, beyond FDA-approved drugs, for a palliative transition.

“It’s not legal, federally, and since we get paid by Medicare . . . ” said Aluren Smith, medical director at the Sangre De Cristo Hospice and Joni Fair Hospice House. “We can’t recommend it, but we never make recommendations for treatment.”

Smith admits that while there are no clinical guidelines supporting the use of marijuana for seniors, she countered that patients are free to use whatever they need to—as long as it doesn’t interfere with a doctor’s recommended care.

As John leaves Maggie’s Farm in Pueblo West, he laughs in his enjoyment of lasting past his doctor’s “sell-by” date.

“Guess my age,” the lanky, animated customer teases.  “I’m in my 70s, but the doctor said I wouldn’t live last past 68.” John, who admitted to being a cancer patient, credits his longevity to  “A good diet, exercise, and a daily bowl.”

Editor’s Note: The names of the customers and patients in this article have been changed, at their request.

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Colorado

Some parents worry new drug approval could shift States’ attitudes on medicinal cannabis

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Some American parents who for years have used cannabis to treat severe forms of epilepsy in their children are feeling more cautious than celebratory as U.S. regulators near a decision on whether to approve the first drug derived from the marijuana plant.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to issue a decision by the end of the month on the drug Epidiolex, made by GW Pharmaceuticals. It’s a purified form of cannabidiol — a component of cannabis that doesn’t get users high — to treat Dravet and Lennox-Gastaut syndromes in kids. Both forms of epilepsy are rare.

Cannabidiol’s effect on a variety of health conditions is frequently touted, but there is still little evidence to back up advocates’ personal experiences. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has long categorized cannabis as a Schedule I drug, a category with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” That strictly limits research on potential medical uses for cannabis or the chemicals in it, including cannabidiol, or CBD.

But for years, parents desperate to find anything to help their children have turned to the marijuana-based products made legal by a growing number of states.

Meagan Patrick is among the parents using CBD to treat symptoms in their children. She moved from Maine to Colorado in 2014 so she could legally get CBD for her now-5-year-old daughter, Addelyn, who was born with a brain malformation that causes seizures.

“My child was dying, and we needed to do something,” Patrick said.

As for the potential approval of a pharmaceutical based on CBD, she said fear is her first reaction.

“I want to make sure that her right to continue using what works for her is protected, first and foremost. That’s my job as her mom,” Patrick said.

Advocates like Patrick became particularly concerned when GW Pharmaceuticals’ U.S. commercial business, Greenwich Biosciences, began quietly lobbying to change states’ legal definition of marijuana, beginning in 2017 with proposals in Nebraska and South Dakota.

Some worried the company’s attempt to ensure its product could be legally prescribed and sold by pharmacies would have a side effect: curtailing medical marijuana programs already operating in more than two dozen states.

The proposals generally sought to remove CBD from states’ legal definition of marijuana, allowing it to be prescribed by doctors and supplied by pharmacies. But the change only applies to products that have FDA approval.

Neither Nebraska nor South Dakota allows medical use of marijuana, and activists accused the company of trying to shut down future access to products containing cannabidiol but lacking FDA approval.

Britain-based GW Pharmaceuticals never intended for the changes to affect other marijuana products, but they are necessary to allow Epidiolex to be sold in pharmacies if approved, spokesman Stephen Schultz said.

He would not discuss other places where the company will seek changes to state law. The Associated Press confirmed that lobbyists representing Greenwich Biosciences backed legislation in California and Colorado this year.

“As a company, we understand there’s a significant business building up,” Schultz said. “All we want to do is make sure our product is accessible.”

Industry lobbyists in those states said they take company officials at their word, but they still insisted on protective language ensuring that recreational or medical marijuana, cannabidiol, hemp and other products derived from cannabis plants won’t be affected by the changes sought by GW Pharmaceuticals.

Patrick Goggin, an attorney who focuses on industrial hemp issues in California, said the company would run into trouble if it tried to “lock up access” to marijuana-derived products beyond FDA-approved drugs.

“People need to have options and choices,” he said. “That’s the battle here.”

Legal experts say the changes are logical. Some states’ laws specifically prohibit any product derived from the marijuana plant from being sold in pharmacies. The FDA has approved synthetic versions of another cannabis ingredient for medical purposes but has never approved marijuana or hemp for any medical use.

A panel of FDA advisers in April unanimously recommended the agency approve Epidiolex for the treatment of severe seizures in children with epilepsy, conditions that are otherwise difficult to treat. It’s not clear why CBD reduces seizures in some patients, but the panel based its recommendation on three studies showing significant reduction in children with two forms of epilepsy.

Denver-based attorney Christian Sederberg, who worked on the GW Pharmaceuticals-backed legislation in Colorado on behalf of the marijuana industry, said all forms of marijuana can exist together.

“The future of the industry is showing itself here,” Sederberg said. “There’s going to be the pharmaceutical lane, the nutraceutical (food-as-medicine) lane, the adult-use lane. This shows how that’s all coming together.”

Alex and Jenny Inman said they won’t switch to Epidiolex if it becomes available, though their son Lukas has Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.

Alex, an information technology professional, and Jenny, a preschool teacher, said it took some at-home experimentation to find the right combination of doctor-prescribed medication, CBD and THC — the component that gives marijuana users a high — that seemed to help Lukas with his seizures.

“What makes me a little bit nervous about this is that there’s sort of a psyche amongst patients that, ‘Here’s this pill, and this pill will solve things,’ right? It works differently for different people,” Alex Inman said.

The Inmans moved from Maryland to Colorado in 2015 after doctors recommended a second brain surgery for Lukas’ seizures. The couple and other parents and advocates for CBD said children respond differently to a variety of strains.

The Realm of Caring Foundation, an organization co-founded by Paige Figi, whose daughter Charlotte’s name is attached to the CBD oil Charlotte’s Web, said it maintains a registry of about 46,000 people worldwide who use CBD.

For Heather Jackson, who said her son Zaki, now 15, benefited from CBD and who co-founded the foundation, Epidiolex’s approval means insurers will begin paying for treatment with a cannabis-derived product.

“That might be a nice option for some families who, you know, really want to receive a prescription who are going to only listen to the person in the white coat,” Jackson said.

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Colorado to toughen car pollution rules

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Colorado’s governor on Tuesday ordered his state to adopt vehicle pollution rules enforced in California, joining other states in resisting the Trump administration’s plans to ease emission standards.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper told state regulators to begin writing rules that incorporate California’s low-emission standards with a goal of putting them in place by the end of the year.

Hickenlooper said the strict standards are important to Colorado, citing climate change and noting the state’s elevation makes pollution worse.

“Our communities, farms and wilderness areas are susceptible to air pollution and a changing climate,” his order said. “It’s critical for Coloradans’ health and Colorado’s future that we meet these challenges head-on.”

Hickenlooper’s order came about three months after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would not implement stricter emissions rules adopted by the Obama administration. Those rules would have started with the 2022 model year.

California has a waiver under federal Clean Air Act allowing it to impose tougher standards than the U.S. rules. Currently, California’s standards are the same as the federal standards. But if the Trump administration foregoes the stricter Obama-era rules, California could still impose them or others.

The law allows other states to apply California’s standards. Colorado would be the 13th state, excluding California, to do so, said Luke Tonachel, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s clean vehicles project. The District of Columbia has also adopted the rules.

The states that currently apply California’s rules are Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

“Colorado is recognizing along with other states that the federal rollback is both unjustified and harmful, so the governor is joining others in protecting his state’s citizens,” Tonachel said.

The Colorado Automobile Dealers Association said California standards might not be a good fit for Colorado because a higher percentage of Coloradans buys pickups, SUVS, vans and all-wheel-drive vehicles, which burn more gas.

“We’re disappointed that the state of Colorado, the governor, or regulatory board or anybody else would cede air quality control regulation to an out-of-state, unelected board in Sacramento (California),” said Tim Jackson, president of the association.

The Obama rules would have required the nationwide fleet of new vehicles to get 36 miles per gallon (15 kilometers per liter) in real-world driving by 2025. That’s about 10 mpg (4 kilometers per liter) over the existing standard.

The EPA announced in April it would scrap the Obama-era rules, questioning whether they were technically feasible and citing concerns about how much they would add to the cost of vehicles. The EPA said it would come up with different rules.

California and 16 other states sued the Trump administration over the plan to drop the tougher rules. All the states that joined the lawsuit have Democratic attorneys general. Colorado, which has a Republican attorney general, did not join.

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Mass uncertainty – White House unclear how it plans to reunite separated children

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Trump administration officials say they have no clear plan yet on how to reunite the thousands of children separated from their families at the border since the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy in which anyone caught entering the U.S. illegally is criminally prosecuted.

“This policy is relatively new,” said Steven Wagner, an acting assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services “We’re still working through the experience of reunifying kids with their parents after adjudication.”

Federal officials say there are some methods parents can use to try to find their children: hotlines to call and an email address for those seeking information. But advocates say it’s not that simple.

In a courtroom near the Rio Grande, lawyer Efren Olivares and his team with the Texas Civil Rights Project frantically scribble down children’s names, birthdates and other details from handcuffed men and women waiting for court to begin. There are sometimes 80 of them in the same hearing.

The Texas Civil Rights Project works to document the separations in the hopes of helping them reunite with the children.

They have one hour to collect as much information as they can before the hearing begins. The immigrants plead guilty to illegally entering the U.S., and they are typically sent either to jail or directly to an immigration detention center. At this point, lawyers with the civil rights group often lose access to the detainees.

“If we don’t get that information, then there’s no way of knowing that child was separated,” Olivares said. “No one else but the government will know that the separation happened if we don’t document it there.”

Olivares has documented more than 300 cases of adults who have been separated from a child. Most are parents, but some are older siblings, aunts, uncles or grandparents. Some are illiterate and don’t know how to spell the children’s names.

More than 2,000 minors have been separated from their families since early May. The children are put into the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services with the aim of keeping them as close to their parents as possible and reuniting the family after the case goes through the courts, said Wagner.

But it’s not clear that’s working.

According to Olivares, the agency is generally “very willing to help,” often helping to find a child even if there’s a misspelling in the group’s records. But if a child has been transferred out of a government shelter — including if the child has been deported — agency representatives won’t give any information.

“Sometimes the parent gives us contact information for a relative,” Olivares said. “If they have the phone number right and the phone number is working … we call that number and sometimes we’re able to locate that relative and ask them what they know.”

In May, the Department of Justice adopted the zero-tolerance policy in which anyone caught entering the U.S. illegally is criminally prosecuted. Children can’t be jailed with their parents. Instead, after the adult is charged, children are held briefly by Homeland Security officials before being transferred to Health and Human Services, which operates more than 100 shelters for minors in 17 states.

The department has set up new facilities to manage the influx of children, and Wagner said they were prepared to expand as more children come into custody.

The children are classified as unaccompanied minors, a legal term generally used for children who cross the border alone and have a possible sponsor in the U.S. willing to care for them. Most of the more than 10,000 children in shelters under HHS care came to the U.S. alone and are waiting to be placed with family members living in the U.S.

But these children are different — they arrived with their families.

“They should just give the kids back to their parents. This isn’t difficult,” said Lee Gelernt of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gelernt represents a Brazilian asylum seeker in a closely watched lawsuit that seeks a nationwide halt to family separation. The woman, identified as Mrs. C in court documents, was split from her son for nearly a year after entering the country illegally in August near Santa Teresa, New Mexico.

On Tuesday, Olivares’ team had seven people left to interview with five minutes left. They took down just the names, dates of birth, and countries of origin of the children.

“One woman (said), ‘What about me, what about me?'” Olivares said a few hours later. “She wanted to give us information because she realized what we were trying to do.”

___

Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat contributed to this report.

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