No Cannabis for the Sick and Dying 

Fifteen years after Prop 215, the people who need medical marijuana the most have the hardest time getting it.

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In fact, she said that medical cannabis bans enacted in cities throughout California have had the most significant impact in terms of shutting off access for most seniors — even more than the crackdown. "The biggest factor in determining whether or not people who need access the most have access to it is whether or not your local jurisdiction has laws that permit and regulate access or ban access outright."

When dispensaries close, "seniors are the ones that are affected the most," she added.

And yet many seniors, who suffer from all types of ailments, don't realize that medical cannabis can make the final years of their lives better and more manageable.

Time and the economy have not been kind to the Eastmont Mall in deep East Oakland. The Subway franchise in the parking lot is walled off with bulletproof glass. Inside the mall, a food stamp center, senior center, and other Alameda County social services inhabit spaces that retail outlets once occupied.

Inside, United Seniors of Oakland and Alameda County has taken up residence. Serving 2,000 Alameda County seniors for 25 years, United Seniors has turned the space into an information clearinghouse, meeting room, and office. The walls are covered with colored fliers advertising classes on a variety of subjects for seniors, from taking mass transit to avoiding pill overdoses.

The back meeting room is always packed for board meetings and presentations. Sue Taylor, chief of senior outreach for Harborside Health Center, recalled meeting with seniors there in February. Taylor, a 64-year-old African-American mother of three, who says she's "very healthy," said she found the reception at the center to be rather hostile. "They received me with their hands crossed and arms folded, like, 'I'm not going to let anyone in and let them tell me nothing about marijuana.'

"Most are African American, and they see this as a touchy subject," she said of the seniors who come to the center. "A lot of our young men are strung out on heavy drugs and unless they are educated, they don't know that marijuana is totally different."

As a lifelong motivational speaker on nutrition and wellness, Taylor knew what to say. "I went in there and I spoke to them about what pharmaceutical drugs are doing to the baby boomers and our population and how many boomers I've lost to pharmaceutical drugs," she said. "I just want people not to shut their doors on it, to look at the facts about the medical benefits it can bring to them.'

Taylor doesn't smoke pot, but she uses a cannabis rub on her sore knees. And if she can't sleep, she'll use some tincture under the tongue. She became an advocate after her son tried to get her to open a dispensary with him. They didn't open one, but she learned about the plant, and then she saw more and more cancer patients using it safely and effectively.

Taylor, who has lived in the Oakland hills for more than thirty years, connects with many seniors who are wary about trying pot because she doesn't look like a stoner. She went to Catholic school as a girl and went on to become a principal at two schools. Her three sons also went to Catholic schools before attending college. "We're a pretty middle-class family," she said.

When Taylor finished her presentation at the center, the board of directors of United Seniors voted unanimously to partner with Harborside on education and outreach. Taylor said that members of the center started telling her "one after another how their husband or themselves were hooked on certain drugs and couldn't get off, and the side effects. They were prescribed two pills a day, but taking a total of thirteen pills from the side effects of the two. I had three people in that group come up to me and say, 'I use marijuana. It's the only way I can survive. Nobody in the group knew that."

United Seniors added Harborside pamphlets to their shelves and invited Taylor and Harborside to their annual Health Fair at the Oakland Zoo in July. United Seniors board member Karen Smulevitz said she had smoked pot as a young adult, but stopped when she got older. She raised three kids in Oakland, and has lived in town for forty years. "I got to be a PTA mom," she said.

Thin, with long white hair, sharp eyes, and a sweet smile, Smulevitz said two doctors have recommended cannabis to her but she hasn't sought it out. "I have a great problem with insomnia," she said. "I go a long time without sleeping. I'll sleep an hour, then that's it the whole night. Then I'm dragging during the day and I'll take a nap because I can't stay up any longer.

"I'm thinking of using cannabis because I'm afraid of sleeping pills," she continued. "I've tried them and I don't like them. I don't like the way they control your body. Cannabis is natural. It's not some chemical manufactured in a factory. I'm more afraid of that kind of thing."

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