Colorado study: Elders and marijuana

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Many patients in a survey of people 65 and older in Colorado found marijuana effective for pain, a geriatric medicine specialist said.

"This was just a survey, so drawing conclusions about the benefits of marijuana use are limited," said Gretchen Orosz, a doctor in geriatric medicine at the University of Colorado's UCHealth Primary Care Clinic.

The survey, "Characteristics and Patterns of Marijuana Use in Community-Dwelling Older Adults," was published Oct. 6 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. The survey was anonymous and completed by 345 people.

Among findings, according to onlinelibrary.wiley.com:

  • Some 113 people, or 32 percent, had used marijuana in the past.
  • Of that 113, 55, or 16 percent, had used marijuana since legalization in Colorado.
  • More than half of current users were 75 or older.
  • A quarter of current users were 85 and older.
  • Most current users were white women.
  • Of current users, 44 percent use marijuana products at least weekly for chronic pain, depression, anxiety and insomnia, and most found marijuana helpful.
  • Most respondents obtained marijuana recreationally instead of by prescription.
  • Nine respondents reported negative side effects attributable to marijuana use. Side effects included loss of balance, dizziness, blurred vision and anxiety and racing thoughts, Orosz said.

Orosz participated Oct. 29 in a question-and-answer session about the Colorado survey by email with The Republican.

Q: Why did you do the study?

A: We did the study because, after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use (in 2014), we were getting anecdotal reports of use by patients in our clinic. We wanted to get a better understanding of how many of our patients were actually using, why they were using and what effects/side effects they may have experienced.

Q: What are the conclusions that can be drawn from your study's findings?

A: The data from this study was obtained close to two years ago, but it showed that a significant percentage of our senior clinic patients used marijuana products for different health problems and symptoms. Most patients did not experience side effects but then many of those patients only used CBD and not THC containing products. Many patients found use of marijuana products effective for pain. This was just a survey, so drawing conclusions about the benefits of marijuana use are limited. 

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(THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, and CBD, or cannabidiol, are among the over 100 chemical compounds in the cannabis plant. THC is the one that is most potently psychoactive, the one that gets a user high. CBD  is a nonintoxicating compound from cannabis used to treat epilepsy and seizures, pain and inflammation, anxiety, Crohn's disease, opioid withdrawal and other conditions.)

Q: The abstract says 345 people completed the study. Was this in the form of you interviewing them or did they complete questionnaires, etc.?

A: The 345 patients included in the study responded to an anonymous survey given at our two clinic locations. They voluntarily answered the survey. 

Q: What are the names of the clinics where the individuals were located that you surveyed?

A:  Respondents came from our two CU (Colorado University) seniors clinics -- one located at the Anschutz Medical Center (in Aurora) and the other at our suburban Lone Tree (in Lone Tree) satellite clinic. 

Q: When did the study begin and end?

A: The surveys were completed between October 2016 and January 2017. 

Q: Given that the abstract notes that the study has limitations -- "small number of survey respondents" etc. -- what parameters are needed for a follow up study to be considered definitive?

A: I'm not sure what you mean by "definitive." This was not a clinical trial and was not designed to answer whether or not marijuana products were effective for medical conditions or symptoms in older adults. It was a survey of our patients' use/practices and their perceptions of that use.

Q: Can you please provide background information about yourself and the number and names of others who helped you do the study?

A: I have been a geriatrician for over 20 years and have been with UCHealth for just under three years. I went to medical school at U of Illinois-Chicago, did my internship/residency at NY University/Belleview Hospital and my Geriatric Fellowship at Mount Sinai.  Dr. Ian Reynolds was the lead on this study (mentored research project during his geriatric fellowship) and other team members included Dr. Danielle Fixen (pharmD), Dr. Sunny Linnebur (pharmD), Dr. Bennett Parnes, Dr. Skotti Church, Dr. Hillary Lum and Prajakta Shanbhag, MPH (graduate student). 

(They are considering a further study of the topic, perhaps surveying  physicians regarding their experience with cannabis use in patients, but no schedule has been established, Orosz said.)

An official with the nonprofit NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) said the Colorado survey showed marijuana was helping seniors.

"This is a population that, in many cases, had firsthand experience with cannabis during their young adulthood, and have now returned to cannabis in older age," NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said in a press release.

"Seniors are turning to cannabis as a potential option to provide symptomatic relief while potentially avoiding the dramatic side effects associated with other medications and improving their quality of life."

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