80% of seniors support medical marijuana -- but there's a catch

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Legal weed is currently among the fastest-growing industries in North America.

In just a span of two decades, this formerly taboo topic that few would discuss has become an industry expected to grow sales by 28% annually through 2021, according to ArcView Market Research. It's also expected to create a lot of jobs tied directly to growing and selling cannabis, as well as indirectly through financing, packaging, marketing, and consulting.

At the heart of this growth is a major shift in the way the public views cannabis. In the U.S., five national polls over the trailing year have all demonstrated strong favorability -- a range of 59% to 64% approval across those five surveys -- toward the legalization of pot. Even folks who identified as Republican in the October 2017 Gallup poll showed a modest favorability toward legalization for the first time ever.

Interestingly enough, though, one group -- and only one group -- has consistently had an unfavorable view of recreational weed: seniors. Gallup's polls have regularly shown that seniors aged 55 and up believe cannabis should remain illegal, albeit their collective dislike of marijuana has eased over the years. That's what makes the latest National Poll on Healthy Aging from the University of Michigan all the more interesting. 

Seniors support medical marijuana... with a catch

The poll questioned 2,007 Americans between the ages of 50 and 80 about their perception of medical marijuana. It consisted of 10 questions designed to gauge whether seniors believe medical cannabis should be allowed to be prescribed by a physician, and if so, to what extent they believe it currently helps those using it.

The core finding was that 80% of seniors support medical cannabis use with a physician's recommendation (45% strongly support, while 35% somewhat support). This is relatively consistent with a broad-based survey from Quinnipiac University in August that asked adults of all ages whether medical cannabis should be legal.

In that survey, 94% favored the idea, with a mere 4% opposed. In other words, even the age group most against recreational legalization is open to the idea that physicians should be able to prescribe medical marijuana.

However, there was also a catch. The catch was that most of the seniors surveyed were skeptical or unsure of the benefits provided by medical marijuana. As evidence, just 6% of the 2,007 folks surveyed were medical marijuana users, although 18% indicated they knew someone personally who uses weed for medical purposes.

When asked to compare medical marijuana with prescription pain medication in terms of pain relief, 48% of respondents chose the prescription pain medication as being more effective. Comparatively, just 14% chose cannabis, and 38% said the two were equally effective.

It's worth noting, though, that considerably more respondents felt prescription pain meds had more side effects (57%) than marijuana (9%). Also, 70% of seniors surveyed would definitely (44%) or probably (26%) consider medical marijuana as an option if they developed a serious condition that could be aided by cannabis.

A physician holding a cannabis leaf between his hands.

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Seniors want regulation and research, too

The University of Michigan's annual survey also shed light on where seniors would like to see the medical marijuana industry head next. First, regulation appears to be on the docket for a majority of seniors polled.

A little over half (53%) believe that the U.S. should develop rules to standardize the dosing of medical marijuana. On the other side of the coin, only 25% believed the U.S. government should not develop dosing standards.

Secondly, they want their physician and medical-care providers to be more knowledgeable when it comes to medical cannabis. Just 21% of the seniors surveyed noted that their primary healthcare provider asked if they used marijuana, and only 18% suggested that their current healthcare provider was knowledgeable about medical marijuana. That left 7% who didn't believe their healthcare provider knew much about medical weed and a whopping 75% who just didn't know.

Finally, just shy of two-thirds of the seniors surveyed believe that the federal government should fund research into the benefits and risks of medical cannabis. Unfortunately, with marijuana's Schedule I classification and just one authorized grow facility at the University of Mississippi, researchers are drowning in red tape.

Jeff Sessions addressing an audience.

Progress could be tough to come by with Jeff Sessions leading the Justice Department

Even though we have yet another survey that demonstrates strong support for medical cannabis and/or continued research, the chances of seeing any real progress are slim so long as Attorney General Jeff Sessions is leading the Justice Department. Sessions has made no qualms about his distaste for the cannabis industry. He's blatantly said, "Good people don't smoke marijuana," and has intimated that the current opioid epidemic was aided by cannabis. He's also, on more than one occasion, attempted to thwart the state-level legal cannabis movement.

In May of last year, Sessions sent a letter to a few of his congressional colleagues requesting the repeal of the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment. Included in each federal spending bill since 2014, this amendment is what keeps the Justice Department from spending federal dollars on prosecuting medical marijuana businesses. Sessions' requests for repeal have been denied.

He was, however, successful in getting the Cole memo rescinded on Jan. 4, 2018. The Cole memo outlined a series of loose rules that states would abide by in order to keep the federal government off their backs. By removing this memo, which Sessions felt overstepped its bounds, it gave state-level prosecutors the discretion to bring charges against individuals and/or businesses that violate the Controlled Substances Act. 

Long story short, marijuana has virtually no chance of rescheduling or de-scheduling as long as Sessions is head of the Justice Department.

Cannabis buds next to a piece of paper that says yes, and lying atop miniature Canadian flags.

The U.S. remains a dangerous place for marijuana investors

With the U.S. marijuana industry stuck in neutral, investors and businesses have been compelled to turn their attention elsewhere. While cannabis legislation goes nowhere in the U.S., Canada stands on the verge of legalizing recreational marijuana by this summer.

Our neighbor to the north OK'd the use of medical marijuana back in 2001. Should Canada move forward with its adult-use legalization, it'd become only the second country in the world, behind Uruguay, to have done so.

Following Sessions' rescinding of the Cole memo, a few of the Canadian players with eyes on the U.S. market began folding their cards. Aphria (NASDAQOTH:APHQF) announced in February, a month after Sessions rescinded the Cole memo, that it would be divesting its passive U.S. assets, which included a stake in Liberty Health Sciences.

Aphria, like other Canadian growers, has reiterated its intention to stay out of markets where the federal government doesn't support legalization in some capacity. Of course, with access to a dozen countries following its Nuuvera buyout, Aphria isn't exactly hurting for places to sell or export its product. 

The point is, though, that marijuana remains a dangerous investment in the U.S., even with strong support from the public. Regardless of whether we're talking about recreational or medical pot, it's simply too risky an investment as long as Sessions remains in charge of the Justice Department.

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