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

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.