For many seniors, medical cannabis is more threat than remedy

Dr. Floyd Huen meets with Apothecarium patient Dieter Schien at his home in San Anselmo. Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Michael Short, Special To The Chronicle

Dr. Floyd Huen meets with Apothecarium patient Dieter Schien at his home in San Anselmo.

Before it even began, the monthly meeting of the People of Parkside Sunset had devolved into an angry crowd of seniors shouting in Cantonese.

“No invaders! No invaders! No invaders!” yelled out 100 or so Sunset District residents crammed into a humid room inside the Taraval Police Station earlier this month.

Their target? Floyd Huen, a Bay Area geriatrician who once led Oakland’s Highland Hospital. Huen, 70, has made it his late-in-life mission to spread awareness of the benefits of medical marijuana among the group he has found most hostile to it: elderly Asian Americans.

For more than 20 years, Huen has counseled thousands of arthritis and insomnia patients to try marijuana. On this night, though, Huen worked to persuade the Sunset group of the benefits of what would be the neighborhood’s first licensed pot shop — one he and his wife, former Oakland mayor Jean Quan, would co-own.

When Huen took the microphone and began trying to speak, the shouting increased. Liar. Child endangerer. Huen was escorted out. The room cheered.

The raucous evening demonstrates the challenge Huen and other doctors who advocate for medical marijuana face in trying to convince not just the general public, but especially older patients they believe can benefit the most.

Twenty-one years after Californians legalized medical marijuana for the seriously ill, experts say the elderly are still the least likely to seek out the botanical or be able to access it. Just 2.2 percent of Californians age 65 and over had ever used medical cannabis, according to the most recent state survey, in 2014, from the California Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System.

Huen and other medical professionals maintain seniors are exactly the population that could most benefit from cannabis treatment. Data support this: In January, the National Academy of Sciences released the most comprehensive and authoritative review of medical marijuana studies to date. It found “conclusive and substantial” evidence that cannabis and its derivatives work on chronic pain, nausea, muscle spasms and a host of other conditions.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, indicate that half of the country’s seniors have chronic pain, half have arthritis, half have insomnia, and 17 percent get migraine headaches, and that many seniors have more than one of these conditions. All are conditions cannabis has been proved to address. Other conditions it has been used to treat include neuropathy, muscle spasms, diabetes and insomnia.

State survey data show that patients who use cannabis use it primarily for those conditions, as well as to ease side effects of cancer treatment. Of the 3,789 Californians surveyed who tried medical marijuana for a serious condition, 91 percent said it helped.

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