Susan, a retired nurse in her 60s, is tired of being what she calls “a bandit” whenever she crosses into Kansas carrying what the state classifies as cannabis contraband.
But the gummies have been the only thing that has helped her get nighttime relief from the rheumatoid arthritis she’s lived with for the past 30 years or so. Her husband recalls her saying the morning after she tried gummies for the first time that it was the best sleep she’d had in years. She’s also found relief by using a cannabis lotion she’s purchased out of state.
Ken, a 66-year-old retired businessman, said he’d rather take gummies than the more addictive opioids he’s been prescribed in the past for chronic back pain.
“I don’t have the side effects that the normal painkillers would give me (like constipation), and it’s a natural product,” he said.
He also suffers from neuropathy in his feet. Taking half of a 25-milligram gummy each night, when the nerve pain is at its worst, helps him sleep. When he can’t travel out-of-state to get his supply, he makes do with hemp-derived gummies available from CBD shops locally, but they aren’t as effective, he said.
Both hemp and marijuana are cannabis plants, but the levels of THC, the psychoactive compound, are significantly lower in hemp plants compared to marijuana. Hemp-derived cannabis products can be bought in Kansas, thanks to a federal loophole created with the 2018 farm bill that legalized hemp.
For Ken and Susan, who live in Sedgwick County, consuming cannabis products isn’t about getting high.
It’s about getting relief from chronic medical conditions, even if it means breaking the law in Kansas where the Legislature has resisted efforts to legalize medical marijuana or decriminalize any form of marijuana use. (The Active Age is not using Ken and Susan’s real names for their legal protection.)
Susan and Ken aren’t alone when it comes to embracing cannabis use as they age.
Americans over the age of 65 are now the fastest-growing demographic of cannabis users, according to the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a federal study that has been gathering data for more than a half-century on the use of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs.
Usage among seniors has tripled since 2009, when 11% were using, to 32% in 2019, according to the survey numbers released in fall 2023.
The attitudes and legal status of marijuana are changing across much of America.
As of 2023, 38 states had legalized medical marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 24 of those states, including Kansas’ neighbors Colorado and Missouri, recreational use is also legal.
There might even be some federal government changes regarding marijuana.
A Food and Drug Administration medical review, released in mid-January, supports reclassifying marijuana as a less-risky drug. Right now, it’s a Schedule I drug, which is the Drug Enforcement Administration’s category for the most dangerous controlled substances that have no medical value and a higher potential for abuse.
The FDA is recommending to the DEA that marijuana be classified as a Schedule III drug. That classification is for drugs with lower or moderate potential for abuse and addiction, like Tylenol with codeine. The review also found that there is credible evidence of some therapeutic uses of marijuana.
It wasn’t news to Cheryl Kumberg, a registered nurse for more than 45 years, that cannabis has medicinal value. A member of the American Cannabis Nurses Association, Kumberg is the current president of the Kansas Cannabis Coalition, which is an advisory group for cannabis reform in Kansas. Its advisory board includes doctors, nurses, a hemp grower, a legislator and Barry Grissom, a former U.S. attorney.
“There’s been so much success with healing and symptom relief … and a lot of advances made in research. There’s a lot of data that is just so supportive of cannabis and its uses,” she said.
She and fellow registered nurse Amy Reid, the past president of the Kansas Cannabis Coalition, created Green Healing Solutions in 2019 to be an education source about the medical use of marijuana for patients, health care professionals, caregivers and others.
Part of their education is to remind anyone who decides to use cannabis products to do so “low and slow.”
One of the things Ken finds useful when he shops at an out-of-state dispensary is that staff will visit with customers about the strength and usage of products.
Many advocates for legalizing medical marijuana have been either impacted personally or have seen the benefits of allowing medical use themselves.
Reid said she became an advocate when she saw how using cannabis dramatically changed her aunt’s final days as she dealt with a terminal illness.
“She went (from) being in extreme pain, nauseous and very anxious to her old self. She was able to tell stories, enjoy meals and relax again,” Reid said in an interview posted on the coalition’s website.
Chuck Schmidt, a former representative for Kansas’ 88th District and the current speaker pro tem for the Kansas Silver Haired Legislature, said he’s heard similar stories.
One man told him that his cancer-stricken daughter, who had been able to get a cannabis product under Texas’ strict medical use program, had to live out her final days in extreme pain when she returned home to Kansas to be with family.
Taking steps to legalize medical marijuana is one of the resolutions that the Kansas Silver Haired Legislature forwarded to the Kansas Legislature for this current session underway.
So far, the Kansas Legislature has shot down efforts to legalize any form of marijuana. While the Kansas House passed a bill to legalize medical marijuana in 2021, the Kansas Senate didn’t take action, which killed the bill. In 2022, it convened a special committee on medical marijuana.
“The biggest problem that I see in Topeka is that they’re not able to separate creating a medical program from recreational,” Kumberg said. “A lot of (legislative) testimony has dealt with recreational issues and not about having a controlled program.”
“They don’t understand that little old people need this law passed,” said Susan. “Some people can’t even hold a cup of coffee without their hands hurting. People don’t realize that it can help with those kinds of things, and we’re not using it to get stoned.”
Susan understands that marijuana use has long carried a stigma. When her husband initially suggested she try cannabis for her pain, she resisted, remembering how as a teenager she’d believed marijuana users tended to be high school dropouts.
Whenever Ken wears his “Legalize It” sweatshirt with the image of a marijuana leaf, “it’s a conversation starter.”
He said many people tell him they want to see the same action.
“So, I tell them, ‘It’s up to you. You have the opportunity to make this happen.’ I just don’t know why we can’t get the right people in power to make medical marijuana legalized.”
From his experience dealing with the Legislature, Schmidt said he doubts that medical marijuana will be legalized in Kansas this year.
“We’ve been on this for quite some time. What we’ve done is our resolution (from the Kansas Silver Haired Legislature) asks for them to form a medical cannabis advisory board to study the legalization of medical cannabis.”
Meantime, Susan and Ken say they’ll continue to import their own supply, legal or not.
Contact Amy Geiszler-Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org.