If we look to our north or south, the status of marijuana is pretty clear. In Canada, the federal government recently passed the Cannabis Act, making it the first industrialized country in the world to legalize recreational marijuana for adults. Meanwhile, Mexican officials greenlighted the use of medical cannabis in June 2017.

But in the United States, the legality of cannabis is about as clear as a dust storm.

An industry in conflict

Since 1996, 30 states have approved medical marijuana in some capacity, with 16 other states also allowing cannabidiol (CBD) to be used for select ailments. Of the 30 states to have legalized medical weed, nine also allow adults to consume recreational cannabis.

So it's legal, right? Well, no.

A judge's gavel next to a book on federal and state marijuana laws.

Image source: Getty Images.

The federal government deems marijuana to be a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Placing it alongside drugs like LSD and heroin, cannabis is considered entirely illegal, prone to abuse, and recognized as having no medical benefits. This scheduling also ensures that marijuana-based businesses struggle to obtain basic banking services and aren't able to take normal corporate income tax deductions, leading to a ridiculously high effective tax rate on whatever profit they earn.

In other words, there's a pretty substantial gap between the expansion-happy state governments that approve of the idea of states' rights and possible legalization and the federal government, which prefers the wait-and-see approach.

Of course, this isn't the only area where bifurcations of opinion occur. In April, the independent pollster Quinnipiac University surveyed Americans on their perception of cannabis. Though 63% of respondents believe that marijuana should be made legal compared to 33% against the idea, age was a defining factor. In general, the younger the respondents were, the higher the favorability went. Whereas 82% of respondents aged 18 to 34 were in favor of legalization, only 43% of seniors aged 65 and over were in favor, with 52% opposed. 

Seniors and self-identified Republicans are perhaps the only two groups who have consistently been opposed to the idea of legalizing marijuana nationally, albeit the magnitude of their opposition has eased in recent years.

A senior man holding a rolled cannabis joint in his outstretched right hand.

Image source: Getty Images.

Surprise! These seniors strongly support the idea of increasing access to medical cannabis

But believe it or not, seniors aren't entirely opposed to the idea of cannabis use. While they don't appear to prefer it being used by just anyone, they do believe it has value in medical application.

Back on May 1, online publication Science Daily, courtesy of Northwell Health, published the findings of a 138-person survey on seniors' (ages 61 to 70) usage of medical marijuana. In particular, these 138 seniors were suffering from chronic pain and had been using opioid medicines to control their pain. The anonymous survey included 20 total questions that gauged how often they used cannabis, to what extent it helped their pain and their ability to reduce or halt opioid use, and whether or not they'd recommend medical marijuana. Here were the results:

  • After one month, pain levels, described on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest, dropped from a baseline of 9.0 to 5.6 for those using medical marijuana.
  • 18% of survey-takers reported "moderately" decreased use of other painkillers with medical marijuana; 20% said they "extremely" cut back their painkiller usage; and 27% said they "completely" stopped using other painkillers (i.e., opioids) with medical marijuana.
  • When questioned about how the side effects of prescribed painkillers impacted their daily activities on a scale of 0-10, the average score was pretty much halved from 6.9 to 3.5 after a month (where 10, again, represented the highest impact possible).
  • 91% of senior survey-takers would recommend medical marijuana to others.
A person standing at a fork in a road, with one path leading to cannabis leaves, and the other to prescription opioids.

Image source: Getty Images.

Coincidentally, the aforementioned Quinnipiac survey in April found that 91% of seniors favored the idea of physicians being able to prescribe medical weed to a patient compared to just 7% opposed. 

The bigger thesis here is that this select group of seniors appears to favor cannabis use to control their pain as opposed to opioids. In recent years, there have been no reported overdose-related deaths associated with marijuana. Meanwhile, the National Institute on Drug Abuse claims that between 21% and 29% of prescription opioid users abuse them, with approximately 115 people dying each day from opioid-related overdoses. 

Another baby step forward on a long road

There's no denying that the prevalence of opioids is a major problem. Last October, President Trump went so far as to declare the opioid crisis a "health emergency," albeit nothing concrete has necessarily been done at the federal level to reduce opioid usage. 

More recently, we witnessed the very first approval of a cannabinoid-based drug by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). GW Pharmaceuticals' (NASDAQ:GWPH) CBD-based Epidiolex was given the greenlight by the FDA to treat two rare types of childhood-onset epilepsy, Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. This approval for GW Pharmaceuticals goes against everything a Schedule I drug stands for under the Controlled Substances Act. In other words, Epidiolex demonstrates that cannabis or its cannabinoids can have recognized medical benefits.

A biotech lab researcher examining a cannabinoid-rich liquid in a beaker.

Image source: GW Pharmaceuticals.

Yet even with growing support for medical marijuana and evidence from the FDA that at least one cannabinoid can provide medical benefits, progress at the federal level likely will be slow. For instance, returning to Northwell Health's survey above, it should be noted that any study of this nature, especially one that looks at only 138 seniors, should be deemed preliminary. Since it hasn't been published in a peer-reviewed journal, the evidence presented doesn't "prove" anything at this point.

There's also that tidbit about Republicans currently being in control of the legislative branch of the federal government. Despite strong support for medical marijuana, Republicans have a less favorable view of cannabis than Democrats. There's a full docket of issues to contend with, including an infrastructure bill, healthcare reform, and the upcoming midterm elections, so cannabis reform probably isn't a possibility in 2018.

Still, the impact medical cannabis could have on the opioid crisis is worth further examination. The support of seniors just might be the tipping point that presses the federal government and researchers into action.

Sean Williams has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.