Medical marijuana may increase productivity in older adults

The new findings suggest that medical marijuana laws improve the health and employment prospects of older adults.
Legalizing medical marijuana can help reduce pain and increase the number of hours worked by older adults, according to a new study published in the spring 2019 issue of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management.

Researchers at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Temple University analyzed more than 100,000 survey responses related to symptoms and ability to work from adults aged 51 years and older over 20 years. They then compared those responses to the dates when medical marijuana laws took effect.

Their findings were significant. The analysis revealed a 4.8 percent decrease in pain and a 6.6 percent increase in reported good or excellent health in adults who would qualify for medical marijuana in the state they live.

“Our study is important because of the limited availability of clinical trial data on the effects of medical marijuana,” said one of the study’s authors, Lauren Hersch Nicholas, PhD, an assistant professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Health Policy and Management.

“While several studies point to improved pain control with medical marijuana, research has largely ignored older adults even though they experience the highest rates of medical issues that could be treated with medical marijuana,” she added.

The data for the analysis came from the 1992-2012 Health and Retirement Study, the largest nationally representative survey on health and labor market outcomes for older Americans.

While the findings don’t necessarily prove that passing medical marijuana laws is responsible for the positive pain effects, they do strongly suggest that providing legal access to cannabis could play a key role in alleviating discomfort in older people. They also add to the evidence that cannabis offers therapeutic benefits to seniors.

Effects of Medical Marijuana Laws on Hours Worked

Hersch and her colleagues also found that the group of older adults who qualified for medical marijuana where they lived experienced a 7.3 percent increase in levels of full-time work. The findings suggest that legalizing medical marijuana could lead to an increase in older adult labor supply.

The researchers also point out that their findings suggest that the increased capacity to work that comes with legal medical marijuana outweighs any decline in productivity that may be caused by cannabis use.

At the time of the analysis, 20 U.S. states had legalized medical marijuana. Today, 32 states plus Washington, D.C. permit its possession and use for medical purposes, despite marijuana remaining completely illegal at the federal level.

“These findings underscore the close relationship between health policy and labor supply within older adults,” said Nicholas. “When we’re doing policy evaluations, we have to think not only about whether the policy is changing health outcomes, but also whether it does it in a way that supports labor force participation.”

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