Joint Effort: Reefer Roadshow Asks Seniors to Support Medical Pot
Silver Tour Targets the Over-65 Set; A Rabbi's Interpretation of 'High Holy Day'
By Arian Campo-Flores, WSJ
LAKE WORTH, Fla.—Selma Yeshion, an 83-year-old retiree here, says she long considered marijuana a menace. "I thought it was something that was addictive" and "would lead to harder drugs," she says.
Then she attended a presentation at the local L'Dor Va-Dor synagogue in April put on by a group called the Silver Tour. The group aims to persuade seniors to support legislation to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes in Florida. A series of speakers, including a doctor, a patient and several advocates, argued that pot was just what the silver-haired set needed to combat conditions like chronic pain and insomnia.
Robert Platshorn told Florida seniors about medical uses of marijuana.
Ms. Yeshion was sold. "I want to get some cannabis," she said afterward, with a big smile. "I have pain in my back, so it would be nice. Damn it to hell, I want to try it once in my lifetime."
Count one more convert for the Silver Tour, which has been delivering its pot pitch at retirement communities and places of worship around the state.
The group was founded in 2010 by an unlikely activist: Robert Platshorn, who served nearly 30 years in federal prison for his role in what drug-enforcement officials call one of the biggest marijuana-smuggling rings of the 1970s.
Pot promoter didn't top Mr. Platshorn's list of preferred careers upon his release in 2008. But he says that after meeting numerous older patients whose conditions would be relieved by cannabis, but who had no access to it, he felt moved to champion their cause.
Mr. Platshorn, 69 years old, decided to focus on his fellow seniors—a group that isn't exactly high on the idea of medical marijuana. People who are 65 and older helped sink a 2010 ballot initiative to legalize pot in California, voting 66% against it, more than any other age group, according to exit polls.
"Nobody in the marijuana movement is talking to seniors," Mr. Platshorn says. Yet "seniors are the only damn people that go to the polls." In Florida, people 65 and older represent 24% of eligible voters compared with 18% nationally, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes, says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, an advocacy group. Six more states debated legalization bills in legislative sessions this year, he says.
According to a 1999 study by the Institute of Medicine commissioned by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, cannabis can potentially help with pain relief, nausea reduction and appetite stimulation, among other things. The study also noted that possible adverse effects include diminished motor skills and dysphoria, or unpleasant feelings.
The Silver Tour, which is funded by small donors, faces stiff headwinds in Florida where Republicans, who control the legislature, have opposed marijuana-legalization measures. Democratic state Rep. Jeff Clemens, who represents Lake Worth, introduced medical marijuana bills in each of the last two legislative sessions, the most recent of which ended in March. But they went nowhere.
Now running for a state Senate seat, Rep. Clemens says he plans to introduce the bill once again next year if he wins. He feels compelled to promote the legislation after meeting many people with terminal illnesses who told him they could benefit from cannabis, he says. Rep. Clemens, who often speaks at Silver Tour events, says he ignores the occasional ribbing from fellow lawmakers. "When 4:20 rolls around, people say, 'It's your time, Jeff,' " he says. (Pot enthusiasts have long used "420" as code for cannabis.)
Silver Tour organizers say the response from seniors at their events has been overwhelmingly positive. The key is to get them in the door to sit through a presentation. Mr. Platshorn says he has two words that usually work for them: "free buffet."
At the Silver Tour event here in April, some 40 seniors showed up. Barry Silver, the congregation's wisecracking rabbi, told the audience that his board was a little nervous about having a group promote medical marijuana at the synagogue. "Don't worry about it," he says he replied. "Why do you think the holiest day of the year is the High Holy Day?"
Among the speakers was Irvin Rosenfeld, a Fort Lauderdale-based stockbroker who has been legally smoking 10 to 12 joints a day for the past 30 years to treat a bone condition. He is one of a few remaining participants in a federal program that provides him with government-grown cannabis for "compassionate use."
The program, overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, was shut down in 1992, but Mr. Rosenfeld and a handful of others were grandfathered.
All that cannabis hasn't dulled his market-analyzing and number-crunching abilities, he says. "If anything, it enhances my practice," he says. "It keeps me calmer."
Audience members responded favorably afterward, as they noshed on a buffet of hummus, cheeses and brownies (regular ones, not laced with pot). Roberta Feinman, 76 years old, said the presentation had dispelled some of her misgivings. "I thought marijuana was only for kids that are, you know, pot heads," she said. "I would consider [cannabis] to go to sleep if it were legal."
Evy Shareff, 85, said she was ready to hop aboard the Silver Tour. "Hearing this tonight made me feel I have an obligation to be much more supportive," she said. "It is wrong to keep this from people who are benefiting without any crime, killing or hurt to anybody."
Not everyone was convinced. Lita Paritsky, 76, said she still worried that pot was a "starter drug" that could lead to more harmful substances. "I'd like to weigh" medical-marijuana legislation, she said.
Mr. Platshorn says seniors interested in cannabis often get turned off by the idea of smoking it. There are a host of alternatives, he says: "vaporizers, lollipops, cookies, oil tinctures, pills, cannabis drinks—I mean, there's no end."
Only 0.4% of people aged 65 or older in the U.S. used marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes in a 2009 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. But 6.1% of those aged 50-54 used it, suggesting that use among seniors could rise as baby boomers age.
Rabbi Silver says he is all for it. He even wrote a song that he says was inspired by the Silver Tour, a riff on the Johnny Nash classic. "I can see clearly now, my glaucoma is gone," it goes. "Gone is the pain that comes from chemotherapy. Gone are the symptoms that had kept me down. It's gonna be a bright, bright, bright day thanks to THC."