Unfortunately, medical marijuana for HIV and AIDS is often under-discussed in cannabis culture. It’s easy to understand why—after all, marijuana, HIV and AIDS are all attached to deep stigmas within our society. However, like epilepsy, the modern medical marijuana movement would be nowhere near as progressive or popular as it is without the push from those living with HIV and AIDS.
From the very beginning of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, patients have used marijuana to help treat their symptoms, as well as side effects caused by their medications. In this blog, we’ll discuss the history and need-to-know facts about these two diseases, as well as how medical marijuana can greatly improve patients’ quality of life.
A Primer on HIV & AIDS
First and foremost, it’s important to understand that HIV and AIDS, while interconnected, are two different conditions, with AIDS being the late-stage form of HIV. Let’s break them down further:
HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus
Scientists have determined the origin of HIV to be a mutation of the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) from a type of chimpanzee found in Central Africa. The virus is believed to have passed to humans around the late 1800s after humans hunted the animal and then ingested the infected meat and blood of the chimpanzee.
Over time, the virus spread across the African continent, eventually making its way to the United States. Researchers have traced HIV’s arrival in the U.S. back to the mid to late 1970s. After its arrival, HIV/AIDS was one of the biggest contributors to death and illness from the early ‘80s to the mid ‘90s.
HIV is a virus that attacks and breaks down the body’s immune system, specifically the CD4 cells, or T-cells, that aid in the body’s ability to fight infection. While the virus can be managed with medications, it is a life-long condition and is impossible to eradicate. When left untreated, the HIV leads to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).
Symptoms of HIV vary depending on how long the virus has gone untreated. For many, the earliest symptoms, often appearing after a few weeks to a month after initial infection, compare to those caused by the flu. Early symptoms of the virus can last for as little as a few days to weeks and may include muscle aches, chills, night sweats, fever, sore throat, fatigue, swollen lymph nodes, rashes, and mouth ulcers.
Others, however, may not experience symptoms at all—and may not for decades. Symptoms or not, patients are highly infectious and prone to spreading the virus to others. Those who do not experience symptoms, and are therefore unlikely to be tested for the virus, are at a much higher risk of spreading the disease and contracting AIDS since the virus may go untreated for an extended period of time.
Over time, as the virus attacks the CD4 cells, the body may become incapable of fighting off other diseases and infections. At this point, HIV turns to AIDS, the final form of the infection.
AIDS: Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome
As stated above, AIDS is the last stage of the HIV infection. However, not everyone who suffers from HIV will contract acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS will only occur if HIV has damaged the immune system beyond repair, specifically when the number of CD4 cells drop below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood.
However, AIDS can also be diagnosed regardless of CD4 cell count if the patient acquires one or more “opportunistic”—illnesses that occur more frequently and are more severe in people with HIV—infections. These opportunistic illnesses to irreparable damage to the immune systems of HIV-positive individuals, further weakening their immunity and damaging CD4 cells.
AIDS symptoms can also vary case by case, but may include:
- Rapid weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Extreme tiredness
- Prolonged swelling of lymph nodes
- Sores on genitals, mouth, or anus
- Neurological disorders
- Memory loss
- Diarrhea lasting longer than a week
- Recurring fever
- Extreme night sweats
- Blotches on or under the eyelids, nose, and mouth that appear red, brown, or purple
If you have any of the symptoms for HIV or AIDS, the only definitive way to know you have one of these conditions is to get tested. The longer these conditions go untreated, the more damaging and deadly they become.
Medical Treatment for HIV/AIDS
The earliest batch of HIV medications were often ineffective and, at best, caused serious and harmful side effects. What’s more, due to a seriously compromised immune system, those suffering from the virus were at a much higher risk for contracting other infections or rare conditions, such as the rare form of skin cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, AIDS dementia, and HIV wasting syndrome.
Modern medicine allows those diagnosed with HIV to live long and healthy lives and, if the virus is caught and treated early, avoid AIDS. Patients are often prescribed one or more of the following course of treatments:
- Protease inhibitors which block the virus from creating new infectious viral particles
- Integrase inhibitors that block the enzyme that allows the virus to replicate
- Fusion inhibitors which stop the virus from entering cells
- Reverse transcriptase (RT) inhibitors stop the virus from replicating
- Multidrug combinations are a mix of the above treatments in one
Possible Side Effects
New treatments, while much more effective and less damaging than their previous renditions, may still cause significant and often debilitating side effects. Most notably, patients on HIV medications may experience nausea which, in turn, increases the risk of loss of appetite and subsequent weight loss. The loss of appetite and weight loss are particularly alarming for those suffering from HIV due to the possibility of AIDS wasting syndrome—one of the leading cause of death for those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
Unfortunately, some HIV positive patients may become resistant to their treatments. Occasionally, the virus mutates, producing variations of itself that becomes resistant to drugs. Without treatment, patients may develop AIDS and, at this point, the median survival rate drops to three years. If the patient is also suffering from an opportunistic illness, the survival rate will dip further to a year.
Medical Marijuana for HIV and AIDS
HIV wasting syndrome is greatly responsible for the increase in support for using medical marijuana to treat symptoms of HIV/AIDS and the side effects of condition-specific medications. Using medical marijuana for HIV and AIDS actually dates back to the 1980s when HIV/AIDS patients were experiencing extreme and unexplained weight loss. At the time, doctors didn’t have the treatments available to battle it. Instead, they turned to marijuana to help stimulate appetite and curb their patients’ weight loss.
Given the clinical ban on the substance, though, physicians instead prescribed Marinol, a Schedule III drug, that contains a synthetic form of THC. While the drug was certainly effective at alleviating some wasting syndrome symptoms, many patients still advocated for the use of marijuana given its instant relief.
Quick and onset relief is especially important to HIV/AIDS patients given the fact that approximately one-third of them experience chronic pain as a result of their treatments. Combined with other side effects, like vomiting, nausea, weight loss, and lack of appetite, many of those suffering from the virus will completely abandon their treatment.
Since cannabis has remained illegal at the federal level, decades later there has yet to be enough clinical trials about using marijuana to treat symptoms of HIV, especially wasting syndrome, to determine how effective it could be. However, the research that has been conducted displays promising results into the efficacy of using marijuana for HIV/AIDS.
For example, in an article featured in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes, researchers found that the use of cannabis, in conjunction with traditional HIV/AIDS treatment, increased a patient’s likelihood to continue treatment by 3.3 times. Their findings come as no surprise to the cannabis-educated. After all, chemotherapy patients have been using medical marijuana to combat many of the same treatment-related side effects.
Cannabis is incredibly effective at alleviating nausea and vomiting, as well as increasing appetite. These two facts alone make the use of cannabis beneficial for HIV-positive patients to reduce their risk of weight loss and wasting syndrome. What’s more, other clinical studies have shown marijuana inhibits brain inflammation associated with HIV/AIDS, hypothesizing that it may actually stop the virus from attaching to the body’s cells.
As stated previously, there is not nearly enough clinical research to definitively prove medical marijuana is beneficial to HIV/AIDS positive patients—there isn’t enough research on medical marijuana, period. However, given the fact that the medical community has relied on an artificial form of THC since the virus first started infecting those in the U.S., we think it’s safe to say that exploring the addition of medical marijuana to HIV/AID treatments can only be beneficial.
It is important to note, however, that medical marijuana alone cannot, and will not, fight HIV or AIDS on its own. These two conditions are incurable, and a lack of treatment will be detrimental to one’s health and wellbeing. Medical marijuana should only be used to help alleviate symptoms associated with HIV/AIDS and the side effects often caused by treatment.