Medical marijuana remains a problem in Arizona assisted living facilities


Nearly a quarter of Arizona’s medical marijuana licenses are held by people over 60. Yet the right to be administered marijuana and marijuana-derived drugs in Arizona assisted living facilities remains poorly understood.

Veronica Santarelli is the CEO of cannabis delivery company Grassp Health, where about 30-40% of the company’s customer base are seniors, spread across hundreds of locations across Arizona.

“There’s a huge misconception about cannabis use in long-term care,” Santarelli said. “I was seeing families sneaking gummies into assisted living facilities, and I was like, ‘You know, you don’t have to do this.'”

Santarelli strongly believes that marijuana should be a normalized healthcare option. The relevant Arizona law, ARS 36-2805, authorizes the administration of medical marijuana and marijuana-derived drugs to registered and qualified patients in licensed assisted living facilities. Like any medicine, it requires a doctor’s prescription.

But finding a doctor willing to give the order can be difficult, both in Arizona and across the country. Santarelli said many physicians refrain from fully embracing medical marijuana for fear of federal or Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) repercussions.

Dr. Elaine Burns, naturopathic physician and medical director of the Southwest Medical Marijuana Physicians Group, is fearless. In the industry since 2011, Burns is a licensed physician with additional expertise including homeopathy, acupuncture and botanical medicine – including cannabis. It is estimated that 75% of his patients are elderly.

“A lot of mainstream doctors refer their patients to me,” Burns said of marijuana prescriptions. “My goal is to help people get better with medication, not just to get a card.”

Burns works with individual patients to prescribe the correct dosage and type. One of the first things she asks new patients is whether they reside in a facility that allows marijuana. When it comes to such communities, there is no one-size-fits-all plan.

“It depends on the facilities,” Burns said. “Some might be willing to allow CBD because it’s federally legal, rather than having a full-fledged card.”

Dr. Elaine Burns


Arizona law outlines four ways assisted living facilities can “reasonably limit” the use of medical marijuana. The law states that they will not store or retain the patient’s supply of marijuana and are not responsible for supplying marijuana to eligible patients. The law further states that marijuana must be consumed by a method other than smoking and only in a location specified by the establishment.

While this would still allow patients to consume, the need for a caregiver not affiliated with the facility to store and administer the doses is often prohibitive.

For a woman, medical marijuana is a desperate option to help ease her mother’s extreme pain and anxiety. She declined to be identified for fear it would lead to animosity towards her mother who resides there. Despite numerous back and forths with the facility, regulators and doctors, the facility refuses to store and administer marijuana to the woman’s mother. As a result, the only options left are to hire outside caregivers, approach the parent to self-administer directly, or opt for a more traditional prescription such as opiates.

“Their policy is that someone, not one of their employees, is responsible for bringing the marijuana to the patient, watching them take it, and removing anything not consumed from the premises,” she said. declared. “The doctor recommended medical marijuana three to four times a day. It’s practically impossible.”

She added that despite numerous requests to provide her parents with marijuana for debilitating anxiety and pain, the facility only repeated that they were “just not comfortable with it. “.

“Their arguments told me that they just didn’t understand,” she said. “I think part of the problem is that there’s a lot of vagueness in this law.”

Shane Pennington, a New York-based attorney who specializes in federal appeals and cannabis-related regulatory issues, also finds ARS 36-2805 vague and confusing.

“You can’t do anything unreasonable unless does this jeopardize funding under federal law or regulation? “Said Pennington. “So, I guess, you can make unreasonable restrictions.

Arizona law does not require assisted living facilities to administer medical marijuana if doing so would harm the facility under federal law. And while such harm is highly unlikely, the conflict between state and federal marijuana law creates confusion and uncertainty.

For example, Pennington noted that assisted living facilities are required by the federal government to register with the DEA to dispense legal controlled substances, like opioid painkillers.

Medical marijuana — while legal in Arizona, 38 other states, and Washington DC — is federally classified as a Schedule I illegal drug. These substances are defined as having “no medical use,” and their distribution could therefore put a facility at odds with the DEA.

Pennington noted that the Justice Department would not be able to expend resources to interfere with the state’s implementation of medical marijuana legislation.

“If what you’re doing is consistent with state medical marijuana regimes, then the DOJ — which includes the DEA — can’t enforce you,” Pennington said. “It’s a deep issue, how confusing it gets.”

The Arizona Department of Health Services said it is not aware of any senior living facilities that embrace the use of medical marijuana. Phoenix new times contacted several assisted living facilities in Phoenix and received a response from one of them.

“Hospice of the Valley fully respects the wishes of all patients who wish to use cannabis-based medications and works collaboratively with their physicians to coordinate a safe and effective plan of care,” the response read.

Hospice of the Valley did not say whether its staff would administer the cannabis-based medicine.

The popularity and acceptance of marijuana-derived treatments for the effects of aging is growing as more seniors question the merits of traditional pharmaceuticals, with their sometimes serious side effects. The research promises relief for older adults with conditions such as pain, lack of sleep and Alzheimer’s disease.

“For 12 years, I watched people quit opioids, fentanyl, morphine, sleeping pills. They basically take their medicine cabinet full of amber plastic prescription bottles and put their one or two cannabis meds on the shelf,” Burns said.

For patients with glaucoma, Burns finds that supplementing traditional medications with marijuana improves pressure levels. Cancer patients tolerate chemotherapy and radiotherapy better. Migraine sufferers report huge reductions in frequency and intensity. And all of them have a better quality of life.

The Arizona Department of Health Services, which issues medical use licenses but does not keep data on the number of licensed assisted living facilities, outlines legally approved conditions for the use of medical marijuana . While this includes glaucoma, cancer, and “Alzheimer’s hustle and bustle”, it does not explicitly include migraines or insomnia. These are common symptoms in older people that Burns finds marijuana alleviates.

Santarelli and Burns cite particularly good benefits for Alzheimer’s patients in living settings, including a calming effect that replaces sedatives that would otherwise leave patients nearly comatose. In one instance, Santarelli recalls a woman with Alzheimer’s disease who was so restless she couldn’t be contained. She was kicked out of multiple living facilities before incorporating medical marijuana into her routine. This calmed her down and allowed her to live out the rest of her life in one residence.

“These are people in hospitals and nursing homes, in many cases they are veterans,” Pennington said. “There’s a federal ban, and the lack of Congress to bring clarity to any of this is anyone’s guess. It’s having a real impact on people.”


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