Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) refers to a specific group of diseases or conditions resulting from severe suppression of the immune system. Scientists have identified the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, to be the infectious agent causing AIDS. HIV destroys the immune system by attacking T-cells in the blood. Like chemotherapy for cancer patients, the standard treatments for HIV infection are highly toxic. Conventional drugs used to treat HIV infection such as zidovudine (AZT), lamivudine (3TC) and various protease inhibitors cause significant nausea, so patients have difficulty withstanding treatment. The nausea also heightens the loss of appetite and weight associated with AIDS. This can lead to a condition known as AIDS wasting syndrome. Wasting syndrome is one of the leading causes of death from AIDS, as it leaves the body weak and susceptible to rare cancers and unusual infections.
Patients living with HIV typically take antiretroviral drugs to prolong the onset of AIDS. However, side effects of antiretroviral therapy, which include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and severe pain in the nerve endings (polyneuropathies) are often unbearable. Other side effects of HIV/AIDS include wasting syndrome or cachexia and intractable pain. Many patients use medical marijuana to help manage their symptoms. According to a 2005 study published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, more than 60% of HIV patients use cannabis as a medicine.
Medical Marijuana is widely recognized as an effective treatment for symptoms of HIV/AIDS as well as the side effects related to the antiretroviral therapies that constitute the first line of treatment for HIV/AIDS. Its value as an anti-emetic (stops vomiting) and analgesic (relieves pain) has been proven in numerous studies and has been recognized by several government-sponsored reviews.
According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), “For patients such as those with AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy and who suffer simultaneously from severe pain, nausea, and appetite loss, cannabinoid drugs might offer broad-spectrum relief not found in any other single medication.“
Columbia University published clinical trial data in 2007 reporting that HIV/AIDS patients who inhaled cannabis four times daily experienced “substantial increases in food intake with little evidence of discomfort and no impairment of cognitive performance.” They concluded, “Smoked marijuana has a clear medical benefit in HIV-positive subjects.“
In 2008, researchers at the University of California at San Diego concluded that cannabis “significantly reduced neuropathic pain intensity in HIV-associate polyneuropathy compared to placebo, when added to stable concomitant analgesics. Mood disturbance, physical disability, and quality of life all improved significantly during study treatment.”
“The profile of cannabinoid drug effects suggests that they are promising for treating wasting syndrome in AIDS patients. Nausea, appetite loss, pain, and anxiety are all afflictions of wasting, and all can be mitigated by marijuana.”
Consumer Reports believes that, “for patients with advanced AIDS and terminal cancer, the apparent benefits some derive from smoking marijuana far outweighs any of the negatives”.
The effectiveness of cannabis for treating symptoms related to HIV/AIDS is widely recognized. Its value as an anti-emetic and analgesic has been proven in numerous studies and has been recognized by several comprehensive, government-sponsored reviews, including those conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the United Kingdom’s (House of Lords) Science and Technology Committee, the Australian National Task Force on Cannabis, and others.
Research published in 2004 found that nearly one-quarter of AIDS patients were using cannabis. A majority reported relief of anxiety and/or depression and improved appetite, while nearly a third said, “it also increased pleasure and provided relief of pain“.
AIDS wasting syndrome was a very frequent complication of HIV infection prior to the advent of protease-inhibitor drugs, and has been associated with major weight loss and cachexia, conditions that further debilitate its victims, who are already weakened by immune system failure and opportunistic infections. Cannabis has been a frequently employed alternative medicine for the condition, particularly in the USA, because of its reported benefits on appetite and amelioration of other AIDS symptoms. In the rest of the world, where such medications are seldom affordable, AIDS wasting remains a common problem to the extent that it is known in Africa as ‘slim disease’.
Research findings on cannabis and HIV/AIDS
Beginning in the 1970s, a series of human clinical trials established cannabis’ ability to stimulate food intake and weight gain in healthy volunteers. In a randomized trial in AIDS patients, THC significantly improved appetite and nausea in comparison with placebo. There were also trends towards improved mood and weight gain. Unwanted effects were generally mild or moderate in intensity. The possible benefit of cannabis in AIDS made it one of the lead indications for such treatment in the judgment of the American Institute of Medicine in their study.
When appropriately prescribed and monitored, Medical Marijuana (cannabis) can provide immeasurable benefits for the health and well-being for people suffering from many symptoms of HIV/AIDS.