Cannabis Treatments for Alzheimer’s Blocked by Bureaucracy
Seniors are the fastest growing group of medicinal cannabis users in the country, and a growing number of nursing homes from coast to coast are tolerating use of tinctures and extracts to combat dementia, insomnia and related ailments. Patient testimony is now backed up by research, with scientists identifying the mechanism by which cannabinoids slow the deterioration of neurons in the brain. But federal strictures continue to pose an obstacle to investigation — leaving medicinal users in the cold under U.S. law.
In the United States, many senior care centers are grappling with whether to allow patients to use cannabis medications on their premises. Some have opted for tolerance, under controlled conditions, while others have remained intransigent, citing potential loss of federal Medicare and Medicaid funding. But few appear to be considering the ground-breaking research in California that appears to substantiate the claims of aging patients that cannabis can be effective in preventing dementia.
In a preliminary study issued by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, scientists grew nerve cells taken from a human brain to study factors that influence levels of a toxic protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The protein, known as amyloid beta, builds up within neurons, inflaming and eventually killing them. His team exposed the neurons to cannabis — finding that it cleared away the protein, reduced inflammation and allowed the brain cells to survive.
While the findings won precious little media attention, the medical profession began to take note. “It’s a very important discovery,” Dr. Michael Weiner, who conducts Alzheimer’s research at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, told San Francisco’s KPIX in their story on the growing number of aging medical users in the Bay Area.
The KPIX account profiled some Bay Area seniors who report dramatic improvement —mostly under administration of extracts containing the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD. Lucy Hanson, 92, called the preparation her “happy pill.” Four years ago, she was psychologically withdrawing, frequently falling and becoming incoherent, so she was diagnosed with advanced dementia. Under CBD treatment, she has regained mental clarity and re-connected with her family.
“It feels as if I’ve been given back a life,” she told KPIX.
Eloise Theisen, a geriatric nurse-practitioner with Green Health Consultants who oversees cannabis treatments for several patients around the Bay Area, weaned Hanson off pharmaceuticals she had been taking in favor of the orally administered CBD concentrate. “I think Lucy’s had one of the most dramatic responses with cannabis,” she said.
Also quoted in the report was Basil Shaaban, who said he saw an “overnight miracle” after his mother Tagrid began using CBD to treat her early-onset Alzheimer’s. After bad experiences with anti-psychotic drugs intended to calm her, the family decided to try a CBD preparation. Basil said his mother’s personality returned, and her agitation and insomnia evaporated.
But the technical illegality of these treatments under federal law has slowed research, making for something of a catch-22. Because of federal prohibition, government bodies like the National Institutes of Health won’t fund the research needed to prove that cannabinoids are effective medicine, and that the prohibition should therefore be lifted. “It’s slowed it down a tremendous amount,” Schubert said of federal policy’s impact on his investigations.
The contradictions of federal policy is well illustrated by the fact that in 2003, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services secured a patent — number 6630507 — for the use of cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants, with potential efficacy against cancer and degenerative diseases. Yet just three years later, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration memorandum paradoxically reiterated the official position that cannabis has “no medical value.”
But the users are undeterred. “Don’t you dare take it away from me,” Lucy Hanson laughed to KPIX. Her daughter Tania Hanson added: “She’d be dead if we had waited for it to be carefully studied.”
Many senior centers have embraced cannabis, such as the Rossmoor Medical Marijuana Education and Support Club, based in Walnut Creek, California, two dozen miles east of San Francisco. The Rossmoor club is still going strong — despite the rigid position of Contra Costa Country, which bans dispensaries and personal cultivation.
However, at other senior centers across the nation, caregivers to the elderly are caught between the desires of patients and families on one hand and federal law on the other. Last month, Cannabis Now reported on Joy Seligman, 94, a Parkinson’s sufferer, who lives at the Aviva assisted-living campus in Sarasota, Florida. Even though she is on the Florida state registry of medical marijuana patients, Seligman was nonetheless not allowed to use cannabis in her home. Aviva actually issued a “new policy” that explicitly banned medical marijuana after being petitioned to allow on-site use by Seligman’s family.
Others are lightening up. In 2017, the Hebrew Home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx began permitting on-site cannabis use. While the staff will not actually administer cannabis, residents may now purchase it under New York state’s official medical marijuana program, keep it in locked boxes in their rooms, and use it to self-medicate.
With patients and caregivers leading the way, there is more pressure each day for the federal government to get out of the way and reconcile its dogma with human needs — and science.
TELL US, do you think cannabis could help Alzheimer’s?