Leida Englar’s earrings match her sweatpants and her lips are painted red. In the 70s, at the height of Reefer Madness, the police were searching Toronto Island for Keith Richards, and her community had her back.
“Leida, Leida, the cops are searching the island. You OK?” recalls Englar, who grew, and still grows, stalks of marijuana high as the head of the Rolling Stones’ guitarist in her backyard. “Police were busting the bands, but people protected us weed smokers — even the Island cops.”
Englar is 75, which makes her part of the fastest growing demographic of cannabis users in the country. Identical to the trend in the United States, it’s seniors in Canada who are embracing marijuana in numbers, whether for pain relief, depression, boredom, anxiety, insomnia or, most likely, a tossed salad of symptoms blurring the line between medicinal and recreational use.
“I get into my nightgown, eat part of a cookie, and wait for that tingly feeling,” says Englar, a grandmother, widowed and blind in one eye with long hair and an active social life. She’s been growing cannabis, a word she doesn’t use, for the past 40 years and has always given away her weed — the word she does use — to anyone who asks. Grown free, her bud doesn’t look like the stuff we’ve been able to legally purchase since Oct. 17; it’s all wild leaves, stems, seeds and sticks and a stalk that she shows this reporter is longer than a guitar.
In 1968, Englar smoked her first joint and the weed she’s nurtured by hand comforted her husband Jerry by her big bay window, listening to music, with their children and friends, during his dying days. She has a liberal approach to cannabis, and acknowledges that it may have influenced her son and daughter getting high in their early teens.
“Back then, kids were smoking everywhere, 13, 14. It’s an awful thought now. We talked about how weed is bad, meanwhile Jerry and I were both smoking tobacco,” she says. “My kids were smokers from early on, they’re smokers still, and it’s cause for alarm, but I don’t think weed is this dangerous, dark drug. Some people don’t like anything that stimulates the body, but I’m not afraid of it now. It helped comfort Jerry right up till the end.”
The focus of cannabis health research and federal marketing on safe practices has been primarily targeted at teens, much like we saw with the safe sex campaigns in the 1980s. However, no one considered whether seniors were having sex and soon we saw an uptick in the 65-plus crowd contracting sexually transmitted diseases. Even scientists don’t think about their grandparents making love, or getting high, but evidence points to them doing both things.
“This is the largest social experiment that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” says Dr. Fiona Clement, director of the Health Technology Assessment Unit within Calgary’s O’Brien Institute of Public Health, who holds cannabis information sessions for seniors groups in Alberta and appears on panels across the country. She thinks specific resources studying how cannabis affects aging will be a priority in 2019.
“We’ve spent a lot of time studying what cannabis does to the developing brain, but far less time monitoring what it does to the aging brain and the scientific community needs to respond,” she says, adding that Canadians are not only living longer, but growing as a cohort of Canada’s population.
According to the Statistics Canada 2016 Census of Population, seniors are 16.9% of our population. Already our largest demographic, by 2036, population projections shows that the proportion of seniors could reach between 23.1% and 25.1% of the country.
“We know almost nothing about how cannabis interplays with the normal process of aging,” says Dr. Clement, adding that as we age, we’re more likely to experience increased health concerns and use multiple medications. The average person over 65 currently takes seven different classes of drugs while 25% of seniors, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, use ten or more drugs per year. How does cannabis interact with other medications? Will it reduce the amount of medicine a senior needs? What do the psychoactive effects do to the aging mind? The truth is, besides anecdotally, we don’t know.
“A new conversation is happening,” says Dr. Clement, “and we owe it to seniors to find answers to the questions being asked.”
One big question being asked amongst seniors in households, at nursing homes and in Canadian hospitals is: Is it cool if I smoke up?
Sometimes, even under the same roof, the answers aren’t always clear. Theresa and Kelly Oliphant live in Battleford, Saskatchewan and Kelly, 64, has been using cannabis as a form of pain relief since 2014, after receiving 33 radiation treatments to treat his prostate cancer. Driving home with his cannabis prescription, Kelly sensed the chill from his wife.
“I felt like she was the head of the DEA and I was the head of a cartel,” Kelly says with a laugh, becoming serious when he adds that he hasn’t taken a pill since smoking his marijuana medicine, including the neuropathic pain relief medication Gabapentin, which made his skin hurt and had him, in his words, “feeling like something someone dragged from the river.”
Cannabis, Kelly says, saved his life and his wife appreciates that deeply. However, she still has trouble reconciling joints as medication, and not something that hippies do.
“When I was growing up, there were six children in the family and my mom asked us not to get into drugs. We were Catholics,” says Theresa, 62, adding that her children, 32 and 27, both smoke marijuana, and she tries reserving her judgment. Once, Kelly even smoked with the kids, an experience he calls “awkward,” with Theresa, who’s diabetic, attempting to live and let live, drawing a hard line only at smoking in the house.
“Nowadays, you can’t tell your kids what to do anyways, and with Kelly, I know it does him a lot of good,” she says, adding that while none of her friends consume cannabis, her brother-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer and received a prescription for pot. Whether or not that’s what prolonged his life, she isn’t certain, she just knows that he’s currently outliving his doctor’s two-month prognosis. However reluctantly, in marijuana, Theresa believes.
“From the medical standpoint, I do think that it’s helped people,” she says, “and I guess I don’t really care if someone smokes. I just don’t want them to smoke around me.”
All long-term care homes in Ontario are meant to have cannabis policies in place as of Jan. 15.
Smoking, or vaping or edibles — which will become legal on Oct. 17, 2019 — is upending old systems, like how insurance covers prescription medicines and senior centres administer drugs.
From an insurance standpoint, things are hazy. Veterans are entitled to coverage for their medical cannabis. Private insurance companies are tentatively coming on board, with each company offering separate policies and stating different ailments for which weed is an appropriate salve. For the vast majority of businesses offering reimbursement, funds come at the request of either a union or an employer.
When Calgary’s Arlene Carlson, 70, purchases CBD and THC oils from Aurora, she’s charged both federal and provincial taxes, as if purchasing alcohol or tobacco, even though her cannabis is doctor-prescribed.
“I don’t have to pay a dime for codeine or T3s (Tylenol 3,) but I pay dearly for this CBD stuff and I pay the tax on top of it? In Alberta, that’s 16.8% — pardon me?” says Clarkson, who had a painful hip replacement and suffers from atrial fibrillation, a cardiac condition, and was rushed to hospital five times in 2015 before experimenting with cannabis. Active in her church and politics — she served on the board of Michelle Rempel’s Conservative campaign — she used codeine for pain relief, but now, cannabis has erased that need. In fact, her cannabis recovery has gone so well, that now her sister and her husband use it, too. (Her son, 43, is still waiting for his prescription to be approved).
“The Christmas before my hip replacement, it was unspeakably awful. But God gives us everything we need and we feel blessed to use this stuff,” she says, adding that although she and her husband have a decent income from their Mister Transmission franchise, the $500-per-month cannabis expense is unjust.
“You know how much less of a burden I am on the health care system?” she says. “I’m at the doctor’s office a third less than I used to be, 911 hasn’t had to haul me away and Blue Cross isn’t paying a dime. The fact that we pay all these taxes on this medical miracle is egregious.”
The legalization of cannabis is disrupting everything in Canadian life, including how we age. It’s a moment you’d think would see Leida Englar on Toronto Island jumping for joy and turning up her Rolling Stones’ albums. Instead, Englar quietly grates her weed in a coffee grinder to make the coconut butter she uses in the chocolate chip cookies she keeps in a tin. At night, when she can’t sleep, she takes a nibble of a cookie and sits in her rocking chair with her cat Sampson. Sometimes, when she’s nervous, she’ll eat a little too much and need to drink water to function properly at a party, especially when the board game competitions heat up. On Boxing Day, she and some friends — not stoned, just mellow — walked their bikes down to the beach.
“That big full moon was out and I sat there looking up and felt grateful,” she says. “I met Jerry and stayed healthy and live in this fabulous community. I’m lucky, and I really believe that weed is a gift.”