Somewhere in a suburban New York basement there is a small, unused bag of marijuana, a last attempt to help an elderly father in his final days.
Always a muscular construction worker, the man had been fit and hearty even into his early 90s. Then, seemingly overnight, came a rush of ailments, turning him into a frail shell of his former self.
One day last spring, in one of his series of hospital rooms, his family — a wife and four grown children — argued over what straws they might grasp to build his strength.
If only he had an appetite, his wife said.
Pot could help with that, said his son.
The wife objected for a while, refusing the more straightforward route of asking for a prescription card. Yes, he qualified under several of the illness categories in New York State, but that would mean talking about cannabis with a doctor, which the 85-year-old woman refused to do. Eventually she agreed to the more hush-hush route, on two conditions — that her son never tell her where he procured the weed and that he hide it in the basement where the police could never find it.
“It might be a changing world, but not for my mother,” her daughter says now. “She’s still living in the one where it’s a crime.”
Medical marijuana may be bought and used legally in 29 states and the District of Columbia at the moment, by Grandpa or anyone else with a qualifying condition, and it is often used illegally in other states by those who believe it helps them with a variety of ailments. But that doesn’t mean Grandpa is ready to buy it.
An exclusive Yahoo News/Marist Poll found that the Silent and Greatest generations — those over age 69 — are least likely to support the legalization of medical marijuana (65 percent favor it, compared with 83 percent of Americans overall) and even less likely to say they themselves would use it, even if it were legal. Only six percent of Americans over 69 say they would use it if it were legal; 13 percent say they would “self-prescribe” for pain; and just 40 percent say they would use it if it were prescribed by their doctor. This compares with 28 percent, 38 percent and 66 percent, respectively, for adults overall. The over 69-age group is also most likely to think the use of marijuana is a health risk (73 percent), compared with baby boomers (59 percent), Gen X (52 percent) and millennials (35 percent).
Yet people who are over 69 are also most likely to suffer from many of the conditions for which marijuana can be prescribed — cancer, terminal illness, chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease — a dynamic that leads to many in younger generations suggesting, cajoling and smoothing the way for members of older generations to use pot.
Of course, there are older patients who use it without reservation. Last month, for instance, 76-year-old actor Patrick Stewart credited the use of cannabis-based sprays, ointments and edibles for relieving his severe arthritis. And the AARP, after years of shying away from discussion of medical marijuana, now runs articles in its magazine about its growing use in assisted living communities.
But as in any moment of change, there is a spectrum of opinion.
Jason Good, a Minnesota writer, did not have to persuade his father to use weed medically as much as keep him company while he did. Diagnosed with leukemia four years ago, 69-year-old Michael Good, a political science professor in Oakland, Calif., was no stranger to weed — he had smoked some as a “hippie” in the 1960s but not much since then. He then turned “a blind eye” to his son’s use as a teenager, but now, 20 years later, he insisted that Jason come along for his first visit to a dispensary. When one location would not allow the son inside with the father, they found another that would. Once inside, Jason says, “It was a fun experience for us. There was something subversive about it. He was sort of giddy.”
After a consultation about how Michael would like the weed to make him feel (he chose “up and creative” over “mellow down on the couch,” Jason says), they bought two different blends and a vaporizer, then headed home to use it together. “He had a tremendous time; I was a nervous wreck,” Jason says, adding that while pot lightened his mood back in high school, it had begun to make him jittery in the years since.
Some parents are even more insistent that their children play go-between. One elderly man in L.A. whose appetite was diminished by kidney disease had all but stopped eating, so his grown children urged him to try medical marijuana.
No, he said. If his name were on record anywhere, word could leak out in his former industry, where he had been well known. So his daughter got herself a card, instead — a relatively simple process in California, which has the broadest list of qualifying conditions in the country.
“I went to a little clinic called 420 Doc and sat in the waiting room with a combo of young stoners and people in their 60s who looked like they had arthritis,” she says. When it was her turn, she told the doctor her father’s symptoms, identifying them as her own.
“I have no appetite. I need something to relax at night and give me the munchies,” she said.
“He looked at me, at my very, very curvy frame, and said ‘Really, dear? The munchies?’” she remembers. “I said, ‘Call it anxiety?’ and he said, ‘OK, we’re going with anxiety.’”
He wrote her an order for an 8:1 ratio of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), the two major chemical components of the cannabis plant, one of which does, in fact, increase appetite. But when she got to the dispensary, having learned from her clinic experience, she played things the opposite way.
“How hungry does this make you?” she asked the clerks about each product, acting as if increased appetite was a problem. Then she bought the ones that would make her (and presumably her father) the hungriest.
Did it work?
When her father knew the cannabis drops were being added to his food, he insisted he was not hungry, but when he didn’t know, he seemed to eat more, his daughter says, though “not in a way that can be proved by scientific measurement.” It’s been about a year “and he’s still alive, so something’s working,” she says. His weight has remained steady, albeit at a near-skeletal 118 pounds.
In other families, though, no amount of suggestions or offers of assistance will persuade an aging parent to try something they still call by names that went out decades ago.
“I tried so hard to talk my Dad into ‘the reefer’ in his dying days,” says Amy Cohen, who runs the SteamPunk Coffeebar in the Los Angeles area. “It came to the point where whatever I gave him to eat, he would ask ‘Does this have Mary Jane in it?’ I would answer: ‘Dad, I’m not going to dose you. You’ll have to ask me for it.’”
She herself is a daily user, both to treat her multiple sclerosis and because she enjoys it, and she regularly asked her father to partake. She’d bring candies and cookies from a dispensary and leave them out for him to see, hoping they would be tempting. But “he was from a different generation; he was not open to change,” Amy says. “The pain pills they were pumping him full of, and that weren’t working, were OK, but not weed.”
Then, one day she came home from work and found him nibbling a cookie.
“Where did you find that?” she asked.
“In a container in the freezer,” he said.
“The one that says ‘Do not eat’? The one where I drew a skull and crossbones so no one would eat it by accident? Dad, that’s marijuana,” she said.
“I guess it’s too late now,” she remembers him saying, as he finished the cookie. She adds, “He had a great night’s sleep after a bout of really, really bad nights.”
Amy’s father never tried weed again. He died soon afterward, in 2014, and she still keeps the container that held those cookies, in his memory.
Jason Good’s father died in the same year. What remained of his father’s marijuana supply is now in a cabinet above Jason’s refrigerator, “way in the back,” Jason says, in a container made for Williams-Sonoma peppermint bark.
And in that New York suburb, the son who kept his promise, and never told his family where he’d gotten a small bag of pot, also never got to give it to his father, because, in the end, the patient’s wife ordered it to disappear.
The man died just under a year ago, and the marijuana is still hidden somewhere in his wife’s basement.
Read more from the Yahoo Weed & the American Family series: