Meet medical cannabis’ senior weapon

senior cannabis
Sue Taylor is planning to open the iCANN Health Center this summer. SOURCE: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle

Oakland resident Sue Taylor is a self-confessed Goody Two-shoes. A decade ago, the grandmother and former Catholic school principal considered cannabis a hard-core drug, not unlike heroin or crack cocaine.

If you had told her then that she would become one of the state’s leading advocates for elder access to medical marijuana, Taylor’s answer would have been simple.

“Oh, you’ve been smoking too much,” she jokes.

But then her son started taking classes at Oakland pot college Oaksterdam University, and after some coaxing, he introduced Taylor to the Bay Area’s cannabis community. And over time, she changed her mind about medical marijuana, kicking off a postretirement career as an activist.

“I couldn’t turn my back on all the healing that I saw day in and day out,” she says. “I became very passionate about it, about the healing aspects of letting people know that there are alternative ways.”

Today, Taylor is certified to teach California health care providers about medical cannabis, and she serves on Alameda County’s Advisory Commission on Aging. She also travels the country, speaking to local officials and hosting seminars for the generation that grew up with “Reefer Madness.”

It helps, she says, that she doesn’t look like a stoner — in fact, she has never smoked cannabis. She does use cannabis-infused skin creams for pain and medicated food to help her sleep.

Early this summer, Taylor will open the iCANN Health Center, a medical dispensary in Berkeley designed with the elderly in mind, a place where seniors can get advice from someone their own age.

“My age group follows the rules and always has, and cannabis was breaking the rules,” Taylor says.

But, through the efforts of Taylor and other advocates like her, that’s starting to change.

“Is it for everyone? Absolutely not. Does it heal many people, most people? The answer is yes.”

We talked with Taylor recently at the Cafe Dejena in Oakland — right across the street from the Catholic school where she used to work.

What does a Sue Taylor medical marijuana seminar look like?

Education. The main thing that’s lacking in the industry is the educational component. Most people, such as myself, thought you just go somewhere and you smoke some weed — that’s not the case. There are different (varietals of cannabis flowers) that help different ailments. There are different ways to ingest it. You don’t have to smoke it. Then I tell them about the (main active ingredients in cannabis) CBD and the THC — nobody knows about that, even people who smoke it every day. I give them a whole educational course on the cannabis plant and what it does and does not do, and what to look out for.

Do many seniors have difficulty accessing cannabis? What are their main barriers?

Doctors and their lack of knowledge about cannabis. The doctors might be open to recommending it to patients, and the patients are reluctant to return, or the doctors don’t want to try it, because of the stigma.

There are a lot of senior care facilities around here with federal funding, and their administrators are afraid they’ll lose their funding if they find out that people are using cannabis. No one has ever lost it, but health care providers fear for their jobs if people use cannabis. That’s the main concern. It’s just fear.

What has their response been to Proposition 64? Have you been getting questions about it?

Nothing really, but let me tell you why I was pro-Prop. 64: Now that it’s legal in California, seniors figure they’re not breaking the law, so it opened the doors. And I think that’s why I’m getting so many calls, because it’s legal now.

Are the seniors you work with knowledgeable about cannabis or completely clueless? What kind of questions do they ask you?

They’re clueless. They ask where you go to get the prescription, and so I lead them back again to their doctor. It’s cheaper and he can write you a recommendation. If he won’t do it, then you can go to many places, and I give them a list. But I refer them back to their doctor first, because they’re seniors and seniors have a lot of ailments. I like to keep them under their medical care.

That’s why I wanted a facility that caters to the needs of seniors. We’ll service anybody; you come, we’ll serve you, and you’ll have a great experience, but it’s a place where seniors can come and get educated and feel comfortable.

How will their experience at ICANN be different from any other dispensary?

(Other dispensaries) have long, big lines. We’ll have chairs and tables to counsel families. Families have nowhere to go to talk. Most facilities do not have a round table where you and your brother and your dad and your mom can sit with somebody who can just talk to you as a family. That’s one of the major differences.

And you know what else is very important to me? Intergenerationality. I want the young people to come. I also want the seniors. Our staff will reflect that: Seniors learn from young people, and young people learn from seniors.

Life is wonderful, and it can be lived pain-free, I don’t care how old you are. But you’ve got to see that, and I deliver the message: There’s another way.

Susan Cohen is an award-winning multimedia journalist with a master’s degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared on KQED, Cannabis Now and Merry Jane.