Is the Cannabis Space Inclusive Enough of Seniors?

Did you hear about the grandmother who went to a dispensary?

Though this may seem like the set-up for a joke, it’s simply just reality. Every day, more and more people over the age of 50 are walking into pot shops. 

According to a study published earlier this year in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, approximately nine percent of U.S. adults between ages 50 and 64 used cannabis in 2018. That number represents an increase from 2013, when seven percent of adults in that age group reported themselves as cannabis consumers. For those aged 65 or older, the numbers rose from 1.4 percent to three percent.

Those figures are certain to rise again as multiple factors — including a growing sense of normalcy surrounding cannabis and more widespread access — continue to bring older, first-time customers to their neighborhood dispensary. Unfortunately, many are noticing that once they walk through the doors, there’s often something out of stock: budtenders who look like them.

Chela Coennen, who hosts the weekly Youtube series “Reefer Revolution” with her husband, David, is eager to see people her age standing on the other side of the counter.

“At dispensaries, you don't see older faces working with the public even though we are the fastest-growing demographic in the space," she says. 

There’s comfort, Coennen argues, in seeing elderly people on a dispensary’s staff in a public-facing capacity. They are arguably better situated to understand certain ailments and concerns that come with age, while the simple fact of their presence indicates that the dispensary in question likely has products targeted towards an older demographic.

But Mary Beth Gaik, a marketing consultant for craft cannabis brands in Los Angeles, isn’t entirely convinced.

“I don't think people over 50 should be budtenders,” says Gaik, 59. “I go to a different dispensary every week. I've probably been to 100 dispensaries and 99 percent of the time, the budtenders treat me with great respect. It's because they either have a parent or a grandparent or know someone my age and thus they have a respect for the plant and what it can do to help me. I'm fine with budtenders being young.”

Gaik’s interest in pot is no recent development. Following a car accident at the age of 12 that left her bedridden for years, she says she discovered cannabis for pain relief and never looked back. 

“I'm just so much happier about being alive now,” she explains.

However, when Gaik decided to see what career opportunities the cannabis industry might hold for her, she largely felt ignored. She posted her information on job sites but received no responses. In 2018, she attended a job fair hosted by a prominent Southern California cannabis trading and distribution company. One of the recruiters Gaik spoke with that day told her that she was a closer.

“I never got a call back from those guys,” Gaik says. “I've been in sales and marketing my whole life, but they didn’t want to hire older people. If you go to Instagram and you put in [the company’s name], you'll see a bunch of their reps. They are all in their twenties.”

Gaik says her experience is proof that some cannabis companies are eager to seem like they’re interested in hiring people over 50 as a means of garnering good PR. That Gaik, an indisputably qualified candidate, did not receive a call back was not a surprise to her. In fact, she even concedes she’s been guilty of the practice herself.

“When I was in advertising sales at Newsweek,” she said, “ I remember I was 30-something and we were interviewing someone quite a bit older. I just summarily dismissed him because of his age and I don't think that's unusual.”

For Chris Schulman, general manager of the longtime San Francisco dispensary Grass Roots, the goal is to maintain a staff that mirrors the diversity of his customers.

“We have employees in pretty much every decade of their life,” Schulman says. “We don't have teenagers anymore, because that's not legal, but we have in the past. We have folks in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties employed here. It really does reflect our customer base.”

In reviewing Grass Roots' intake numbers from a random day in July, Schulman says that 20 percent of their business came from customers aged 50 or older. 

“That's significant,” he notes.

Gaik agrees. Cannabis brands have an endless opportunity to target and engage with older customers, she says, but she's seen only a few actually take advantage of it. 

“Short of telephones with large number keys, walk-in bathtubs, and pharmaceuticals, people over 60 don't buy anything except cannabis,” Gaik laughs. “There's so much money to be made by targeting this group and I don't think anybody has done a really great job of doing that yet.”

But for Chela and David Coennen, whose mission is to spread education about cannabis and how it helps seniors, the older demographic is their target audience. 

While long familiar with the plant, Chela, 48, and David, 55, became acutely interested in its medical properties after Chela’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2010. 

“My mom had been a regular medical cannabis user my whole life,” Coennen says. “She had gallstones, so I grew up knowing cannabis as medicine. When she got sick and was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, the doctor said she couldn’t use marijuana because it would be bad for her memory.”

At first, the couple tried to heed the doctor’s orders, but with her mother’s health continuing to decline, Coennen finally acquiesced one day when her mother asked for a puff of the joint she was smoking.

“She fell five times in three weeks on the prescription meds, as prescribed and wouldn't get out of bed,” she recalls. “So I called her new doctor and asked if she could have a couple hits? She said, 'She hasn't gotten out of bed in three weeks. Give her whatever she wants.'”

The results were instantaneous. Encouraged by her mother’s notable improvement, Coennen began to titrate her off of the numerous black box label (the strictest labeling requirement the FDA can mandate) drugs she’d be prescribed. Eventually, Coennen’s mother relied solely on cannabis, coconut oil, and sometimes a small dose of Trazodone (a prescription antidepressant) to help her sleep. 

Coennen wasn’t necessarily a fan of the last item on that list, but she concedes that purchasing her mother’s medicine out of pocket wasn’t cheap.

“Part of the problem is that cannabis isn’t covered by insurance," she explains. "[Even though] it’s the least harmful medicine for so many ailments that really impact older people — joint pain, insomnia, anorexia, clearing the tau of plaques and tangles.” 

Though cannabis is not a cure for Alzheimer's, Coennen believes it has an important role to play in the coming years. Not only are THC and CBD proving to be useful tools in keeping patients calm and happy, they also offer an appealing alternative to pain medications and other over-the-counter prescriptions that come with endless side-effects.

“The impending disaster of an Alzheimer's tsunami is coming,” she says. And there's data to back it up. Currently, 5.8 million Americans are living with the disease, according to the Alzheimer's Association. By 2050, that number is projected to skyrocket to almost 14 million as the baby boomer generation (defined by the boom in U.S. births following World War II) continues to grow older. Alzheimer’s is currently the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and more than 16 million Americans are providing unpaid care for people with the disease or another form of dementia.

“If we don't do something dramatic and drastic, we're going to be eclipsed by the cost of caring for people living with dementia," Coennen continues. "Cannabis is the answer to that. The Alzheimer's Association just testified before the FDA that there are not enough studies and evidence that cannabis helps dementia. That's total hogwash.”

Jeffrey Westman is hoping to be part of the solution, too. That’s why he founded Kasana Care, a company that specializes in cannabis products for those suffering from Alzheimer's and similar diseases. Like Coennen, Westman was also inspired to get into cannabis when a family member — in this case, his stepfather — struggled with Alzheimer's.

“It was really an amazingly difficult and sad thing to go through,” he says. “A big part of that was seeing how hard it was for my mom.”

With Kasana Care, Westman hopes to offer products that cater both to those suffering from Alzheimer's and related diseases, as well as to their caregivers. For the former, the company has created a  5-milligram chocolate wafer with rounded edges (to avoid a patient potentially cutting their mouth or tongue, which is a genuine risk when motor and sensory loss sets in) that is scored down the middle, should a half-dose be preferred. Developed with a semi-comatose consumer in mind, the context surrounding Kansana Care’s product may be bleak, but its necessity can hardly be questioned.

According to Westman, the concept is still a work in progress.

“We're starting there, but we do know there are quite a number of residential care facilities [that are OK with cannabis] that don't want to have to deal with chocolate in that format," he says. "So we're also going to be doing a line that will be in blister packs. It'll just be like all of their other meds.“

Kasana Care is also developing a CBD tincture and pain cream that's actually intended for caregivers, who may avoid THC so they can remain alert and available for their patients

These types of products address a need — among both caretakers and their patients — that will soon rapidly expand in scope. 

When it comes to cannabis and older generations, it’s clear that a major effort will be required to fully ingratiate the two. The first step is education — be it at residential facilities, community town halls, or through video tutorials. The undeniable truth is that stigmas surrounding cannabis remain deeply ingrained for many who lived through Richard Nixon and the War on Drugs.

“Where I'm from in the Midwest, people won't even say the word 'cannabis' out loud," Gaik says. 

There also needs to be an effort made on the part of cannabis businesses to hire employees of all ages, but especially when it comes to public-facing positions like budtenders. That doesn’t mean that seniors should be considered as a quota to be filled. To the contrary, hiring someone over the age of 50 to work at your dispensary will likely increase the chances that customers from that demographic will want to shop at — and return to — your store.

Still, Schulman of Grass Roots cautions that sometimes assumptions can go both ways.

“I've got a couple of younger folks who are just wonderful with our older demographic,” he says. “They take the time to explain and empathize. They don't get frustrated. My only point is that older budtenders do not need to be the only ones helping older customers.”

Lastly, to borrow Coennen’s term, there’s the “Alzheimer's tsunami” currently heading for shore. 

In addition to educating the next generation of caregivers about how cannabis may help those suffering from dementia-related diseases, there are questions of cost. Will the end of federal prohibition pave the way for cannabis to actually become an accepted mainstream medicine? It’s possible. But in the interim, there will also be a need for more items like Kasana Care’s wafer and other products designed specifically to aid caregivers in administering THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids. 

Though Westman makes clear that he considers compassion to be a cornerstone of what Kasana Care does, he concedes that even those motivated solely by the almighty dollar would be wise to take an interest in what’s unfolding. Over the next 35 years, the Alzheimer’s Association projects that 28 million boomers will develop the disease. In 2020, it will cost $11.9 billion to care for those suffering from Alzheimer’s. In 2040, that figure is projected to top $328 billion. 

In a bleak twist, it won’t actually be the boomer generation that Westman is targeting — it will ultimately be the people purchasing cannabis on behalf ailing boomers (and likely in need of some relief of their own) who represent the true cash cow.

“On the one hand, it's really, really sad and alarming," Westman explains. "On the other hand, if you look at it from a marketing and commercial perspective, this is a goldmine waiting to be tapped. The numbers are going to be huge.”

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