Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a group of diseases resulting from disruption to the immune system. It infects patients as a virus called HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) and is categorized as a wasting syndrome. Symptoms include nausea and loss of appetite, typically resulting in the severe weight loss that’s characteristic of wasting syndromes.
Most patients also suffer extreme neuropathy, which is nerve pain that results in severe tingling and pain in the hands and feet. These symptoms also typically produce dangerous levels of anxiety and depression in sufferers.
As the HIV infection advances, it increasingly compromises the immune system, making patients more susceptible to common infections like pneumonia, influenza, bronchitis, and tuberculosis — and sometimes even tumors. These are conditions that typically do not plague otherwise healthy adults who have a properly functioning immune system.
The HIV virus first attacks T-cells in the body, often gaining access to the blood stream by compromising the immune system of the stomach and intestinal tract. When a patient’s T-cell count becomes too low, it is a red flag that they have contracted AIDS. Without treatment, about 50 percent of those who contract HIV will experience a manifestation of AIDS within ten years.
The World Health Organization estimates that half a million Americans have died of AIDS and that there are currently more than one million people in the U.S. infected with the disease. Since its discovery in 1981, AIDS has caused 36 million deaths worldwide (as of 2012).
AIDS resulted in nearly 1.5 million deaths globally in 2013 alone. It is estimated that more than 35 million people around the world have HIV. For this reason, the disease is considered a pandemic. It is more prevalent in poorer nations, like Africa, where drugs and treatment are either unavailable or too expensive for impoverished patients.
Pharma Drugs and Side Effects
Like cancer, conventional treatments for AIDS include strong drugs with a plethora of negative side effects, including extreme nausea — making it difficult and sometimes impossible for patients to keep down pharmaceutical drugs like zidovudine (AZT) and lamivudine (3TC).
The journal AIDS Care: Psychological and Socio-Medical Aspects of AIDS/HIV, in a 2007 report, estimated that up to 60 percent of AIDS patients self-medicate using cannabis. Unfortunately, of those, 86 percent were forced to obtain their medicine on the black market (as more states adopt medical legalization, this situation will obviously improve).
The side effects of HIV/AIDS drugs include vomiting, loss of appetite, and severe pain in nerve endings (a condition called polyneuropathies). These are in addition to the natural symptoms of the condition itself — and why AIDS medication and cancer chemotherapy are among the most traumatic and dangerous treatments available.
Cannabis not only is an anti-emetic, suppressing the nausea naturally resulting from AIDS and enhanced by drugs like AZT and 3TC, but also stimulates appetite. Together, this results in patients gaining the ability to not only keep down their drugs, but also to obtain proper nutrition simply because they develop an appetite. Together, these benefits are literally the difference between life and death for millions of AIDS patients.
A 1999 report commissioned by the White House and Institute of Medicine (part of the National Academy of Sciences) found that nausea, appetite loss, pain, and anxiety can all can be treated with cannabis. The study concluded:
“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.”
A study conducted in 2001 by the British Association Science Festival in Glasgow entitled “High Hopes for Cannabis to Relieve Pain” found that a marijuana extract sprayed under the tongue “was effective in reducing pain in 18 of 23 patients who were suffering from intractable pain.”
A study published in 2007 in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes and conducted by Columbia University revealed that smoking marijuana significantly decreases nausea and improves appetite, increasing caloric intake and body weight. The study also found that cannabis did not impair subjects’ mental performance.
The study involved patients who inhaled cannabis four times daily and noted that they experienced “substantial…increases in food intake…with little evidence of discomfort and no impairment of cognitive performance.” The study concluded:
“Smoked marijuana…has a clear medical benefit in HIV-positive [patients].”
A 2008 study performed at the University of California at San Diego, published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, found that smoked cannabis “significantly reduced neuropathic pain intensity in HIV [patients] compared to placebo.” The study said that “cannabinoid therapy” may be a powerful treatment option for pain relief in HIV patients.
The research concluded:
“Mood disturbance, physical disability, and quality of life all improved significantly during study treatment.”
A 2013 study conducted at Temple University School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine concluded that cannabis use for the treatment of HIV/AIDS may be “opening the door to the generation of new drug therapies for HIV/AIDS.”
A 2014 study conducted at Louisiana State University led by Dr. Patricia Molina and published in the journal AIDS Researcher and Human Retroviruses found that daily consumption of THC results in significant improvements for HIV/AIDS patients.
It has been found that HIV will first attack the gut and intestines of a sufferer. This allows the virus to diminish the immune system of the gastrointestinal tract to the point that it can permeate cells to directly enter the bloodstream and fully infect its victim.
Using monkeys as test subjects, Molina conducted a 17-month study of rhesus monkeys, all of which were SIV-positive (a condition in monkeys that is very similar to HIV in humans). Some of the monkeys were treated with a high concentration of THC, while a control group was not. The study revealed that the monkeys treated with THC had significantly stronger immune systems than those that were deprived of the cannabinoid.
“When we started the study, we thought it was going to increase viral load, we thought it was going to decrease lymphocyte counts much more dramatically, and we did not see that. If anything, it looks like there might be some beneficial immunomodulation, particularly at the early stages of infection.”
Another 2014 study conducted at San Francisco General Hospital by the University of California’s Pain Clinical Research Center and published in the journal Neurology found that inhaled cannabis reduced HIV-associated neuropathy (nerve damage that affects a wide variety of nerve types). Patients who smoked cannabis three times a day experienced a 34 percent reduction in pain. Researchers concluded:
“Smoked cannabis was well tolerated and effectively relieved chronic neuropathic pain from HIV-associated neuropathy.”
It is no mystery why studies have revealed that more than half of AIDS patients self-medicate with cannabis. Because the symptoms of this deadly disease — primarily nausea, loss of appetite, and pain — are so targeted to the efficacy of marijuana, patients gain incredible relief and improvement to their quality of life.
However, in the United States, until cannabis is reclassified from Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, clinical trials involving humans will be impossible. In the meantime, Americans will eagerly await the results of studies conducted in other countries as more and more clinical evidence accumulates that proves the efficacy of marijuana for HIV/AIDS and a long list of other conditions.
This post was originally published on July 14, 2015, it was updated on October 5, 2017.