Benefits of Medical Marijuana for HIV

From the earliest days of the HIV epidemic, marijuana (cannabis) has been used to treat many of the complications of the disease, ranging from the symptoms of HIV wasting syndrome to side effects associated with antiretroviral drug use.

While newer generation drugs have greatly reduced the incidence and severity of many of these conditions, marijuana is still popularly embraced as a means to alleviate the pain, nausea, weight loss, and depression that can accompany infection. There have even been suggestions that marijuana may afford long-term benefits by effectively slowing — or even preventing — progression of the disease.

So what are the facts? Are there any studies to support these claims, or is the use of marijuana in treating HIV all buzz and no benefit?

Marijuana buds with marijuana joints
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Early Use of Marijuana in HIV

From the early-1980s to the mid-1990s, HIV was a major contributor to death and illness in the United States. Early generation HIV drugs were prone not only to premature failure, they often came with serious and sometimes debilitating side effects.

Moreover, people living with the disease were at high risk of illnesses we don’t see as frequently these days, including Kaposi’s sarcoma (a rare form of skin cancer), AIDS dementia, and the aforementioned HIV wasting syndrome.

It was, in fact, this last condition which first spurred support for the use of medical marijuana. Doctors, who at the time had few options for treatment, surmised that marijuana’s appetite-stimulating properties could benefit those experiencing the profound, unexplained weight loss as a result of this still-mysterious condition.

Since laws in the mid-80s to early-90s forbade the use of marijuana in clinical settings, doctors began to prescribe the Schedule III drug Marinol (dronabinol), which contains a synthetic form of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient of cannabis.

While Marinol proved to be successful in alleviating many of the symptoms of HIV wasting, many still preferred the “instant hit” afforded from three to four puffs of a marijuana cigarette.

HIV Wasting 

While the support for marijuana in the treatment of HIV wasting remains strong, research is still limited. Ultimately, many of the laws banning the use of marijuana in clinical settings have stifled robust scientific investigation. By contrast, studies supporting the use of Marinol have been relatively well established.

Research published in the February 2016 issue of HIV/AIDS concluded that Marinol is able to stimulate appetite and stabilize weight in people with advanced HIV wasting while affording an average gain of 1% in lean muscle mass.

Comparatively speaking, there is little data demonstrating the efficacy of smoked marijuana in achieving the same results. Most research, in fact, seems to show that Marinol is far more effective in achieving weight gain. Despite this, people tend to prefer smoking marijuana for its perceived benefits, from the immediacy of effect to its stress- and pain-relieving properties.

Moreover, drugs like Megace (megestrol acetate) are known to be more effective in stimulating weight gain than even Marinol (although weight gain tends to be due to increases in body fat rather than lean muscle mass). Of the three drugs, none seem to have any effect on reversing cachexia, the muscular atrophy associated with severe wasting.

Today, most approaches to therapy include a combination of appetite stimulants and anabolic drugs (like testosterone and human growth hormone) to treat severe wasting. Numerous studies have looked at the effect marijuana has on how strictly those with HIV adhere to their therapy, but results have been mixed — with marijuana increasing adherence in some and hindering in others.

HIV-Associated Neuropathy

In addition to its appetite-stimulating properties, marijuana has been frequently used to alleviate the painful nerve condition called peripheral neuropathy, a side effect largely associated with earlier-generation HIV drugs.

Peripheral neuropathy occurs when the exterior sheath covering nerve cells is stripped away. When this happens, the exposed nerve endings can cause an uncomfortable “pins and needles” sensation that can progress to a seriously debilitating condition. In some cases, the neuropathy is so great as to make walking or even the weight of a bedsheet on one's feet impossible to bear.

Many studies have confirmed a link between inhaling cannabis and pain relief. A 2013 study analyzing the effects among 23 people found that inhaling 25 mg of 9.4% THC three times per day for five days decreased pain and improved sleep quality.

Adverse Effects

The subject of medical marijuana remains highly contentious and politically charged. While on the one hand, there are a growing number of beneficial indications for medical use, there are well-documented consequences that can undermine those benefits.

As a drug, THC acts on specific brain receptor cells that play a role in normal brain development and function. When used recreationally, THC over-excites these cells, providing the “high” that users actively seek.

In teenagers, this level of excessive stimulation can dramatically impact cognitive function over the long term, manifesting with poor memory and diminished learning skills. (The same does not appear to be true for adults who regularly smoke.)

Furthermore, heavy marijuana use is linked to a number of adverse physical and mental effects, including:

  • Breathing problems, similar to those seen in tobacco smokers
  • Increased heart rate, problematic to those with coronary heart disease
  • Possible fetal development problems during pregnancy
  • Worsening of symptoms associated with mental illness, including schizophrenia
  • Intoxication and slowed response time, nearly doubling the risk of a fatal car crash
  • Impairment of male fertility due to lower total sperm count

While the adverse effects of low-level, recreational cannabis use appear to below, they can be serious in vulnerable individuals. These effects are largely dose-dependent and can vary from person to person.

Contrary to common belief, marijuana can be addictive, and those who start using it before age 18 are four to seven times more likely to develop a marijuana use disorder. Treatment is primarily focused on behavioral therapies. Currently, there are no medications approved for the treatment of marijuana use disorder.

Marijuana Laws by State

The legal landscape surrounding medical marijuana is fast changing. Today, more than half of the U.S. states now allow for comprehensive, public medical marijuana and cannabis programs.

While the Federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug (i.e. having the high potential for dependency and no accepted medical use), the push for legalization has gained momentum, with some states allowing retail sales to adults.

Laws in these states vary but generally provide protection from criminal action if marijuana is used for medical purposes. Home cultivation in some states is also allowed.

As of 2019, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana, while 22 states allow for the prescribing of marijuana for medical purposes.

Despite these legislative changes, as a Schedule I drug, marijuana remains technically illegal from a Federal standpoint. As such, medical marijuana cannot be covered by health insurance nor can it technically be prescribed by a physician who theoretically risks legal action even in states where medical marijuana is legal.

Recreational Use Allowed
  • Alaska

  • California

  • Colorado

  • District of Columbia

  • Illinois

  • Maine

  • Massachusetts

  • Michigan

  • Nevada

  • Oregon

  • Vermont

  • Washington

Medical Use Allowed
  • Arizona

  • Arkansas

  • Connecticut

  • Delaware

  • Florida

  • Hawaii

  • Louisiana

  • Maryland

  • Minnesota

  • Missouri

  • Montana

  • New Hampshire

  • New Jersey

  • New Mexico

  • New York

  • North Dakota

  • Ohio

  • Oklahoma

  • Pennsylvania

  • Rhode Island

  • Utah

  • West Virginia

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Article Sources
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