Marijuana Laws Put Senior Living Between a Bud and a Hard Place

As more states legalize marijuana senior living providers must decide how to regulate use.

As the nation undergoes a changing marijuana regulatory landscape, rife with opposing state and federal statutes, senior living providers are left to determine their own policies on the Schedule 1 drug as it gains approval in more and more states.

In Colorado, the first state to make marijuana legal for both medical and recreational purposes, senior living providers have chosen different ways to approach the state’s marijuana laws.

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Emeritus Senior Living, which operates eight assisted living and retirement communities in Colorado, has a medical marijuana policy in the states where it is legal that allows patients to oversee the storage, control and use of the drug. Residents must have a valid physician’s order and follow state-specific regulations if they want to store, control or use it.

Yet while residents can possess and store marijuana, the national senior living provider will not store or manage medical marijuana for residents because it remains illegal under federal law, its policy states.

Other providers, including North Star Rehabilitation and Care Community in Denver, do not allow use of the drug.

North Star Rehabilitation and Care Community receives federal funds, a spokeswoman says, citing their stance on the issue.

And soon, Emeritus’ medical marijuana policy will change due to the company’s upcoming acquisition by Brookdale Senior Living, says Karen Lucas, vice president of product development and communications at Emeritus Senior Living.

“It’s complicated,” Lucas says, adding that personnel all have strong views on how to move forward with its medical marijuana policy. The current policy does not allow for recreational marijuana use.

“We have a lot of situations where federal regulations are contrary to the state’s. Which way do we go?” Lucas says. “And, we do have some Medicare and Medicaid residents.”

The distinction between the drug’s illegality at the federal and state levels, in states where applicable, is key, says healthcare attorney Fred Miles, of Denver, Colo.-based law firm Miles & Peters.

Providers that utilize Medicare, Medicaid or other federal funds run a risk of losing federal funding should they create policies that condone usage of something federally classified as illegal, Miles says.

And while those who lobby in favor of medical marijuana laws say federal action against senior living providers who align with state laws is highly unlikely, Miles says even publishing procedures on the issue can engage a “slippery slope.”

Miles visits local and national long-term facilities to discuss the issue through his presentation “Are Nursing Homes Going to Pot?” and says a growing number of providers, and residents, have questions about marijuana use.

Many argue that marijuana helps in the management of chronic pain and other ailments, which are common health concerns for seniors in long-term care facilities.

Last year, 44% of Americans aged 50 to 64 and 17% of those 65 and older had tried marijuana, according to a Gallup poll. That’s more than double the amount of seniors who had tried marijuana in 1999 — 22% and 3% by age group, respectively.

And as the senior population is expected to double by 2025 as baby boomers age, marijuana activists say they expect marijuana use by seniors to grow.

“As more people who are comfortable and/or experienced with marijuana use enter senior living communities, it will require administrators to develop new policies for how, when and where residents may consume marijuana,” says Marijuana Policy Project Communications Manager Morgan Fox.

Many providers implement a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, Miles says, adding that it’s much easier to look the other way than address the issue head on.

“Until the federal government takes an active role, facilities are left to fend for themselves,” he says.

And it’s not just a matter of risking federal funds, he says. Operators must answer questions like, “Are the premises private or public? How can it be ingested? What if residents have roommates? Who’s going to undertake storage? Will it be treated like a narcotic?”

“All of these issues have to be flushed out,” Miles says.

At Emeritus’ Colorado senior living facilities, marijuana is not allowed to be smoked, and the policy includes regulations for consumption.

Lucas says that while having a medical marijuana policy has not notably impacted marketability of the sites to date, at some point it might.

And, while no residents have engaged in medical marijuana consumption at the Colorado Emeritus properties, one prospect did call to inquire about the policy, and expressed interest in leaving his current senior living residence because it did not allow medical marijuana use, she says.

“Our business is about freedom of choice and giving residents the choice to do what they want with their day, but the other side of that debate is it’s against federal regulations,” she says.

Across the country in Massachusetts, senior living providers are asking similar questions with the recent passage of The Massachusetts Act for the Humanitarian Medical Use of Marijuana, which took effect Jan. 1 of last year.

Because facets of the acts have yet to be implemented, such as dispensaries or an ID card system, many potential consumers don’t have a safe way to access marijuana for medicinal purposes, says Matthew Allen, executive director with Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance.

But, many in the senior living industry are expressing interest as the new regulation unfolds, Allen says.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from assisted living and hospice organizations,” he says. “Providers are interested to learn about existing cases where seniors found benefits from medical marijuana, and we know from clinical studies that for folks with severe pain medical marijuana can help increase quality of life.”

Written by Cassandra Dowell

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