Tucked between the affluent San Francisco suburbs of Lafayette and Walnut Creek is Rossmoor, an upscale senior-living community of some 10,000 residents 55 and older. Rossmoor members have a plethora of activities at their convenience, from bridge to bocce ball to social clubs (Boomers Forever!). But they are also among the few older adults in this country who can find expert information on how to use medical marijuana right in their own community.
Rossmoorâs Medical Marijuana Education and Support Club is one of the communityâs most popular activities, with an email list of over 1000 names testifying to the localsâ voracious appetite for learning about cannabis. From Rossmoor and the surrounding towns, inquisitive seniors crowd the clubhouse twice a month to hear guest lecturers: cannabis researchers, professional practitioners, activists and industry representatives, who share their knowledge and practical insights.
On a recent Tuesday evening, I was one of those undaunted by the East Bay chill and drizzle who made it to Rossmoor to hear a talk on âCannabis and Seniors,â presented by the public education officer of a San Francisco dispensary. There I met Renee Lee, a 66-year-old clinical psychologist and president of the club, who was also one of its founders. She recalled responding to an ad in the local newspaper back in 2011, seeking fellow residents interested in starting a medical marijuana club. âOriginally it was intended as more of a social activity, but as a therapist, I felt it was important to include an educational component.â Around 20 people showed up for those initial meetings, which now regularly attract up to 200 participants.
Waiting for the program to begin, the attendees sipped tea and nibbled cookies while they perused the Information charts and tables lined with books on medical marijuana and CBD, along with advertisements for cannabis-infused mints, teas and other products (no samples). Conspicuous among the seasoned crowd were the odd young cannabis company representatives, there to learn a thing or two about this unique target market.
In the front row waiting attentively for the program to begin were three generations of a single family. The 72-year-old bearded patriarch explained to me that he had disdained pot smokers his entire life, but when conventional medicine wasnât helping with his various ailments, he was finally willing to reconsider his attitude about marijuana. His daughter sitting next to him, a registered nurse, was the one who convinced him to give marijuana a try. With the help of a nurse practitioner who guides many of the Rossmoor residents with their medical marijuana use, he is struggling to shake the stigma of his cannabis use, and finds that adding the term medical makes him take marijuana more seriously. His twenty-something grandson, seated at his other side, came along to the meeting to learn what he could.
Another regular club attendee was a 70-year-old woman who uses cannabis to treat fibromyalgia and the aches and pains resulting from two hip and two knee replacements. She finds the speakers at the club to be excellent, and the information much more relevant (and in her case, potentially life-saving) than what she was used to hearing. âIt was here that I learned that my cannabis medicine could interact poorly with the blood thinner I was taking.â
Rossmoorâs Medical Marijuana Club is the second largest of its kind in the state, following on a similar club at the Southern California retirement community of Laguna Woods. Considering that California is at the vanguard for most things cannabis, the Rossmoor club might actually be the second largest medical marijuana club for seniors in the country, or in the world for that matter. But what I find most remarkable about these clubs is the model they present of a community that is proactively educating itself about medical marijuana, at a time when accurate and unbiased information is so hard to find.
Older adults interested in medical marijuana often find that the mainstream healthcare system treats the drug like an illicit stepchild. At the club meeting I attended, several participants described the resistance they encountered from their physicians when they expressed interest in cannabis therapeutics (this, in the state that pioneered medical marijuana laws). And if their doctors did express support, they specifically emphasized that they were speaking off the record.
Even with the blessing of a doctor, navigating the dizzying array of products, modes of administration and dosing options can be a strong deterrent for older adults, in spite of the help of the best-intentioned dispensary staff.
Getting information from the internet can also be confusing and risky. A recent study found that 76% of claims about medical marijuana made by popular websites were inaccurate and based on low-quality evidence.
For those who can afford it, there are private professionals who provide personal guidance through the often time-consuming trial-and-error process of achieving an effective medical marijuana regimen. Yet with cannabis products already a costly expense not covered by medical insurance, hiring a personal guide can be a luxury out of reach for many seniors.
This is why the Rossmoor Medical Marijuana Education and Support Club, with its lectures, website and built-in community, is such a valuable resource.
Politically, the Rossmoor cannabis community has proven itself a force to be reckoned with. Rossmoor is located in the highly conservative Contra Costa County, which is notoriously inhospitable to cannabis commerce. But when legislation was recently being considered that would make it more difficult for Rossmoor residents to get their medicine (there are no nearby dispensaries, forcing residents to rely mainly on deliveries from dispensaries in Oakland and other proximate locations), the club members packed the city council meetings to make their voices heard. As one resident explained, âWe wanted them to see who the dangerous drug fiends they were so afraid of actually are.â
After the lecture, I spoke with a woman from a retirement complex not far from Rossmoor, who together with a colleague, has organized a similar club for their community. She believes that at least 35% of their residents use medical marijuana, but many of them are just coming out in public about it. Expecting only a small number for their first meeting, the organizers were overwhelmed when 125 people showed up. âIn our area we donât have any delivery services, but we are determined to educate ourselves and not simply rely on dispensary staff to sell us our medicine.â
In the future, Renee Lee intends to expand the clubâs format beyond guest lectures to include discussion groups where members can share their experiences regarding what works for them and what doesnât.Â In the meantime, as seniors across the country continue to gain access to medical marijuana, in the absence of clear guidance on how to fully reap its benefits, Rossmoor demonstrates that sometimes it takes a village to protect oneâs vital interests.