California was the first state to recognize the medicinal use of cannabis and allowed access to the plant for medical patients back in 1996. The bill that allowed access to medical marijuana was initially conceived by San Francisco cannabis access advocate Denis Peron in memory of his partner, Jonathan West. West had been using cannabis acquired on the black market to treat the symptoms of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Since then, medical marijuana has become legal in 33 states. The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and AIDS were the diseases that cracked the door open for medical marijuana laws in other states. California’s recognition of its use in treating the symptoms of these diseases gave other advocates the evidence they needed to get laws passed elsewhere.
Although the disease was known to scientists for many decades, HIV and AIDS became known to the public at large in 1981. It all began when homosexual men in New York and California began acquiring rare diseases such as Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a kind of skin cancer. In 1982, scientists recognized that not only were homosexual men reporting these diseases but so were hemophiliacs and heroin users. By September of 1982, scientists gave the disease a name – AIDS.
Not long after, in 1983, researchers identified the virus that led to AIDS and named it HIV. Although they had isolated the virus that caused AIDS, it took many years for scientists to find medicines that could slow this fatal condition and control the symptoms. Before these were discovered, many early AIDS patients turned to cannabis because they experienced relief through smoking it.
The Stages Of AIDS
Like with many diseases, the progression and symptoms of AIDS can differ from person to person. However, medical research has identified three primary stages of AIDS and the symptoms associated with each.
Stage One: Acute Primary Infection
Beginning at about one to four weeks following the contraction of the HIV virus, many patients experience a flu-like illness. Symptoms of the disease at this stage include:
- Body rash
- Sore throat
- Swollen glands
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Muscle pain
- Joint pain
Stage Two: Asymptomatic Stage
Once the first stage of HIV has been passed, a person infected with the virus will begin feeling better. Many people do not begin experiencing the symptoms of the third stage for 10 to 15 years. However, the virus is still active and replicating and doing damage to the immune system during this stage.
Stage Three: Symptomatic HIV Infection
By this stage, a patient’s immune system is heavily damaged. At this point, a patient is more susceptible to infections such as bacterial and fungal infections. In a healthy immune system, these infections would normally be fought off by the patient’s own bodies, but now the patient is too weak to fight them off.
Symptoms of this stage include:
- Chronic diarrhea
- Persistent cough
- Night sweats
- Weight loss
- Mouth and skin lesions
- Regular infections
- Serious illness and disease
When a patient develops opportunistic infections due to a damaged immune system, that is when they have progressed to AIDS. HIV eventually causes AIDS as it weakens the immune system over years.
How Cannabis Helps HIV/AIDS
For people going through these stages, especially stage 3 and beyond, cannabis has been shown to control the severity of these symptoms. What started out as experimentation turned into proven science and growing legalization for this formerly-maligned medicine.
Here are some other side effects from HIV/AIDS that cannabis can help treat.
Nausea and Wasting Syndrome
HIV and AIDS often come with prolonged weight loss which some medical professionals have called “wasting syndrome.” This symptom was the major symptom that spurred calls for medical marijuana legalization due to its horrible effects. The appetite-stimulating properties of cannabis had been known for ages, even among non-users of the drug. Doctors correctly surmised that cannabis could help with the weight loss symptoms of HIV/AIDS by increasing appetite.
While a synthetic THC drug called Marinol was often prescribed at first, many patients preferred the immediate relief that taking a few smoked hits of dried cannabis flower could provide.
Later, a study published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes concluded that patients suffering from severe gastrointestinal symptoms were over 3 times more likely to adhere to their HIV/AIDS drugs if they also smoked marijuana.
Cannabis has since been recognized by several government-sponsored reviews, including those conducted by organizations such as the Institute of Medicine (IOM). The IOM concluded that: “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.”
Along with severe nausea and wasting syndrome, many HIV/AIDS patients suffer from peripheral neuropathy, the same condition that affects many people with type-2 diabetes. The condition causes excruciating pain and/or loss of sensation in the hands and the feet. There is both clinical and anecdotal evidence supporting the use of cannabis for the treatment of neuropathic pain.
A study published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management confirmed the benefits of cannabis for treating pain. For this study, patients who were HIV-positive were asked to answer a questionnaire regarding their cannabis use and the relief from symptoms that they experienced. A total of 523 people filled out the questionnaire.
Of those, 63% reported that cannabis helped to relieve muscle pain. 51% reported that it helped to relieve nerve pain. 35% reported that cannabis helped to treat headache pain.
Furthermore, a study done by British researchers found that cannabis extract sprayed under the tongue reduced the level of neuropathic pain in 18 of 23 patients.
In the United States, the Chief of Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital performed another study. 50 patients were involved in the study, which had them smoking 3 joints comprised of 3.56% THC over 5 days and recording their pain levels. Over half reported at least a 30% reduction in pain. The first cannabis joint of the day reduced pain levels by 70% on average.
The compound tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, has shown the potential to slow the mental decline that up to 50% of HIV/AIDS patients experience. This conclusion was drawn from a study done at the University of Michigan.
It is believed that the process behind the mental decline is chronic inflammation in the brains of patients with HIV/AIDS. In the study, the researchers took blood samples from 40 patients who also reported their marijuana use or non-use. They discovered that in the patients who smoked cannabis there were fewer inflammatory white blood cells.
Mental Health Benefits
Patients diagnosed with HIV/AIDS understandably experience higher instances of depression and anxiety. While more clinical tests need to be performed to determine the exact effect that cannabis has on these conditions, many patients have reported that cannabis has provided relief from these symptoms as well.
In the same study that asked patients about pain and cannabis use, 56% reported that cannabis helped with depression. 64% reported a positive effect of cannabis on anxiety.
More clinical studies are needed to determine the full medical benefits of cannabis and its mechanisms for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. These studies are often hampered by the federal classification of cannabis as having no medical benefits in the United States. However, if you have been diagnosed as having HIV/AIDS and live in a state with legal medical cannabis, talk with your doctor about the possibility of incorporating it into your treatment regimen.