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In 2019, nearly a third of all Canadian medical cannabis users were senior citizens, according to a new study by the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto.

Sunnybrook researchers conducted this new study to track the rate of medical cannabis use among older Canadians. The research team gleaned their data from patient surveys collected by a commercial medical cannabis provider between October 2014 and October 2020. Out of all the medical marijuana patients who responded to the surveys during those years, 9,766 were over the age of 65.

In 2017, the researchers found that senior citizens accounted for 17.6 percent of all medical marijuana users who responded to the survey. The following year, that proportion grew to 26.7 percent, and by 2019, 31.2 percent of all medical marijuana users were senior citizens. In 2020, the proportion of senior citizens declined back to 22.7 percent, but this data may have been thrown off by the fact that fewer people actually answered this survey in 2020 than did in 2019.

The study reports that CBD is the most popular cannabis choice for older Canadians. Nearly half (45.2 percent) of seniors said that CBD was the only form of cannabis they used, while another 30.5 percent said they used CBD along with small concentrations of THC. Most seniors also said they preferred using higher doses of cannabis oil formulations.

The survey also asked respondents to report their use of other medications, and a large proportion of seniors said they were using opioids or other painkillers. Specifically, 44.5 percent were taking over-the-counter analgesics, 28.3 percent were using prescription opioids, and 24.5 percent were taking anti-inflammatory drugs. Over 40 percent of seniors said that once they started using medical pot, they were able to reduce their dosages of opioid medications, though.

Seniors also reported using other drugs, including antidepressants and benzodiazepines. Study author Krista L. Lanctôt, PhD, senior scientist, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center, told Medscape Medical News that this information could be cause for concern because doctors do not fully understand how these drugs interact with cannabis in older adults.

“Cannabis effects may differ in older adults due to altered metabolism, comorbidities, and use of concurrent medications,” Lanctôt told Medscape. The study also reported that some of the older patients reported suffering from dizziness or drowsiness after using cannabis. The study authors caution that these symptoms “call for studies of adverse effects in older adults where falls and driving impairments are of concern.”

Nearly a third of all senior citizens in the survey reported that medical cannabis helped reduce their pain-related symptoms by 50 percent or more. Many of the patients also reported improvements in sleep and overall mood after beginning to use medical pot. Around 15 to 20 percent of seniors did report that pot had no effect on them, or even made their symptoms worse, though. 

The findings of this study back up prior research finding that medical cannabis use is increasing in adults over 65. An older Canadian study found that ten times as many seniors were using pot in 2019 than in 2012, and an American study found that seniors’ pot use grew by as much as 75 percent between 2015 and 2018. 

Another study reported that over a quarter of all seniors were able to completely quit using opioids after starting to use medical cannabis, and dozens of other studies have linked access to medical cannabis to reductions in opioid use and abuse.