Sitting in the living room of her beautiful 1930s Northeast Portland home, Judy Fisher puffs on a vape pen of cannabidiol oil. As she exhales, a hint of lavender permeates the room.
At age 70, Fisher has discovered the benefits of cannabis.
"I'm a disciple," she said. "I would go out and give testimonials if I didn't think the feds were going to come and put me on the no-fly list."
Fisher is among a growing number of Oregon seniors using marijuana extracts to treat aches and ailments. She's not looking for a high — "If I wanted to get a buzz, I really like bourbon," she said.
Rather, she's using products made from cannabidiol oil, also called CBD.
"Until I understood about CBD, I thought people who got medical marijuana cards did it so they could get high and get it cheaper," Fisher said. "I was uninformed."
While tetrahydrocannabinol -- THC -- is the component that gives marijuana users a high, the compound she uses has no intoxicating effects. It's been shown to be beneficial in treating nerve pain, insomnia, anxiety and other disorders without threat of overdose.
But the federal government makes no distinction between the two components. It's all related to marijuana and thus considered a schedule 1 drug — as dangerous by classification as heroin. Fisher is especially worried now that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded the Obama-era policy of non-interference with state marijuana laws.
The two components derived from cannabis "are completely different but the government hasn't made that distinction, and certainly Jeff Sessions doesn't know anything about it," she said. "Nobody is talking about the science of these products, and that's hindering advances in medical care."
For about the past year, Fisher, a retired nurse practitioner, has been spreading the gospel: in her painting class, at the gym, to women experiencing sleepless nights from menopause. She's walked into "the local pot shop" with friends, guiding them through an often intimidating process for seniors new to cannabis.
Her journey started after Oregon legalized small amounts of home-grown marijuana in 2015.
"My son and I thought it would be a lark to grow some pot in our backyard because we could, and it was fun and we named the plants," she said. "We harvested it and I never really used it because I discovered I don't like smoking that stuff."
Not long afterward, Fisher herniated a disc in her back, and she's had chronic nerve pain ever since. She began researching the medicinal benefits of cannabis and cannabidiol oil, but when she talked to her doctors about it, they offered little help or recommendations.
So Fisher found her own way. The first product she tried was equal parts THC and CBD – not a good fit.
"For about an hour I couldn't move my body," she said. "I was hallucinating like I was on mushrooms or something and I thought 'woo, this isn't the right product.' But I knew enough that it would wear off and if I could just wait an hour this feeling would go away."
After that experience, she looked for CBD products with minuscule amounts of the ingredient that leads to a high. She uses a vape pen, tinctures from a dropper, and capsules, none of which give her any kind of high but do provide pain relief.
Fisher's local pot shop is Silver Stem Fine Cannabis at 1926 NE 40thAve., just two doors down from the Hollywood Senior Center. General manager Chris York said roughly 30 percent of the store's customers qualify for the senior discount, and probably one in five are age 70 or older. He remembers a 99-year-old customer who chuckled when he checked her ID.
"It was definitely shocking," York said. "In Colorado, you see an average age of 30 going to the dispensary. Here our average age is probably 48 to 52."
Many curious customers come from the nearby Senior Center, which has hosted several "Know Your Cannabis" seminars for older clients.
"We also have Providence hospital right down the street from us," York said. "I can't tell you how many people are coming in and they are incredibly nervous, they have never smoked pot or had any cannabis related products, but they're kind of at the end of their rope with prescription medications."
York tries to gauge someone's experience level with marijuana – some of the hippie generation are no strangers to it, but others are looking for something new to help with pain.
Most seniors are looking for cannabis products that provide relief but not intoxication, and York recommends something like Mr. Moxey's Mints, which come in a small tin and contain one milligram of THC to five milligrams of CBD per piece.
Fisher also likes the CBD Hemp Store at 1523 SE Morrison. There, she's gotten 10 milligram capsules as well as a lemon ginger oil tincture, which she applies under her tongue using a dropper.
It's ironic the Attorney General claims to be combating the opioid crisis while at the same time condemning marijuana. CBD could be a non-addictive alternative to oxycodone, but little research is done because of federal laws against it.
"Everybody's so worried about these opioids and people are dying," Fisher said. "They give lip service to say 'oh this is a big problem' ... but here you have a product that's been around for probably centuries and they won't allow study on it."
And that's why Fisher invited a reporter into her home to talk about her vape pen and her back pain. She knows she doesn't fit the stereotype of a cannabis user. She thinks the country's most reliable demographic of voters could have a say in changing federal policy and could themselves benefit from cannabis products.
"We seniors have to get out of the closet about this," she said.
-- Samantha Swindler is a columnist with The Oregonian/Oregonlive
@editorswindler / 503-294-4031
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