Just Say No? Medical Marijuana in Nursing Homes

The legalization of marijuana is on the ballot in California this November, but California isn’t the only part of the country where marijuana is making news. The use of marijuana for medical purposes is being debated around the nation—especially as concerns elderly patients in nursing homes which receive federal funding through Medicare or Medicaid.

This article on the New York Times’ New Old Age Blog reports on this issue, and just how concerned and confused nursing home facility administrators are about what their options are and how to proceed. “Any patient using medical marijuana breaks federal law. Marijuana is listed as a Schedule 1 drug, which means the federal government considers it to have no medicinal value. Despite this, physicians in 14 states and the District of Columbia are allowed to recommend it. . . Many facility administrators wonder how they can comply with federal law and preserve their reimbursements and at the same time permit residents to medicate with marijuana.”

Federal funding isn’t the only conflict attached to the medical marijuana issue. Nursing homes in New Mexico (a state where marijuana was legalized for medicinal purposes in 2007) report that “the lack of dosing direction has caused problems. . . Pills in nursing homes are in what they call vacuum packs: you have to pop a pill out one at a time. They don’t do that with marijuana. It’s an amount of marijuana in a small plastic bag, so there is no way to track if someone took one or two pinches.”

Another issue to consider is the stigma attached to marijuana use, and complaints from other patients or residents.

Medical marijuana is generally prescribed to seniors to help them deal with chronic pain. Oregon’s long-term care ombudsman, Mary Jaeger, asks in the article above “Wouldn’t any one of us, in our own homes, feel that we have the right to live our lives by our own values and choices, to preserve our own dignity and, frankly, to live pain-free?” Will seniors moving to federally supported nursing homes have to find other ways to deal with chronic pain? And more importantly… will they be willing to do so?

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