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HIV is a typically asymptomatic virus that causes AIDS and interferes with the body’s ability to fight infections. Research shows cannabis helps patients manage symptoms associated with HIV and AIDS treatments and may even help slow the progression of the virus.
Overview of HIV
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, spreads through body fluids and specifically attacks the immune system’s CD4 cells (also known as “T cells”), gradually destroying them and making the body less effective at combating diseases and infections. Untreated, HIV can progress to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, which is the stage of HIV infection when your immune system is considerably damaged and T cells fall below 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood (200 cells/mm3). With AIDS, even diseases and infections that are easily combated by healthy individuals pose a threat that can be fatal.
HIV is transmitted through the transfer of body fluids, including blood, semen, pre-seminal fluid, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, and breast milk. In the United States, HIV is most commonly spread through sex or sharing an injection needle with someone with HIV.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, more than 1.2 million people in the United States are living with the HIV infection and nearly 1 in 8 are unaware that they are infected. Despite potentially experiencing an initial bout of flu-like symptoms during the first two to four weeks after infection, many of those infected never report symptoms for 10 years or more. The only way to determine whether one is infected with HIV is through testing. Health care providers can provide an HIV test and there are home test kits available. A number of organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), offer free testing.
There is currently no effective cure for HIV, so once its acquired, the focus of treatment is on controlling the virus and preventing it from progressing to AIDS. A person who has AIDS must receive treatment to prevent death.
While antiretroviral therapy has been shown to effectively curtail HIV from progressing to AIDS, the symptoms and side effects of the long-term drug therapy are considerable. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, heart disease, weakened bones, muscle tissue breakdown, and neuropathic pain are commonly reported during HIV treatment regimens. Weight loss due to nausea and a loss of appetite compounds weaknesses in the immune system.
Findings: Effects of Cannabis on HIV
While the side effects of HIV and AIDS treatments can impinge on one’s life quality, studies have shown that medical marijuana can help make the adverse effects more manageable. Studies have found that daily and chronic neuropathic pain related to HIV can be significantly lowered by regular cannabis consumption2. Medical marijuana also boosts appetite and daily functioning, helping to combat weight loss and muscle breakdown5.
Research also suggests that consuming medical marijuana is safe for patients with HIV/AIDS1. One study found no significant association with cannabis use and the CD4 T-cell count of patients co-infected with HIV and HCV, suggesting cannabis has no adverse effects on the immune system6.
While research surrounding marijuana’s potential treatment effects on the HIV virus itself, a recent study discovered that marijuana-like compounds blocked the spread of HIV virus during the late stages of the infection4.
States That Have Approved Medical Marijuana for HIV
Nearly all U.S. states will medical marijuana laws have approved medical marijuana for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. These states include: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia.
In Maryland, medical marijuana may be prescribed for patients of any disease or condition that causes chronic pain.
In Washington D.C., any condition can be approved for medical marijuana as long as a DC-licensed physician recommends the treatment.
Findings from Recent Studies on Cannabis’ Effect on HIV
- Abrams, D.I., Hilton, J.F., Leiser, R.J., Shade, S.B., Elbeik, T.A., Aweeka, F.T., Benowitz, N.L., Bredt, B.M., Kosel, B., Aberg, J.A., Deeks, S.G., Mitchell, T.F., Mulligan, K., Bacchetti, P., McCune, J.M., and Schambelan, M. (2003). Short-term effects of cannabinoids in patients with HIV-1 infection. Annals of Internal Medicine, 139, 258-266. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/10574358_Short-Term_Effects_of_Cannabinoids_in_Patients_with_HIV-1_Infection_A_Randomized_Placebo-Controlled_Clinical_Trial.
- Abrams, D.I., Jay, C.A., Shade, S.B., Vizoso, H., Reda, H., Press, S., Kelly, M.E., Rowbotham, MC. and Petersen, KL. (2007, February). Cannabis in painful HIV-associated sensory neuropathy: a randomized placebo-controlled trial. Neurology, 68(7), 515-21. Retrieved from http://www.neurology.org/content/68/7/515.long.
- Beal, J.E., Olson, R., Laubenstein, L., Morales, J.O., Bellman, P., Yangco, B., Lefkowitz, L, Plasse, T.F. and Shephard, K.V. (1995, February). Dronabinol as a treatment for anorexia associated with weight loss in patients with AIDS. Journal of Pain and System Management, 10(2), 89-97. Retrieved from http://www.jpsmjournal.com/article/0885-3924(94)00117-4/pdf.
- Costantino, C.M., Gupta, A., Yewdall, A., Dale, B., Devi, L., and Chen, B. (2012) Cannabinoid Receptor 2-Mediated Attentuation of CXCR4-Tropic HIV Infection in Primary CD4+ T Cells. PLoS One, 7(3), e33961. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3309010/.
- Haney, M., Rabkin, J., Gunderson, E., and Foltin, RW. (2005, August). Dronabinol and marijuana in HIV(+) marijuana smokers: acute effects on caloric intake and mood. Psychopharmacology, 181(1), 170-8. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00213-005-2242-2.
- Marcellin, F., Lions, C., Rosenthal, E., Roux, P., Sogni, P., Wittkop, L., Protopopescu, C., Spire, B., Salmon-Ceron, D., Dabis, F., Carrieri, M.P., for the HEPAVIH ANRS CO13 Study Group. (2016, April 13). No significant effect of cannabis use on the count and percentage of circulating CD4 T-cells in HIV-HCV co-infected patients (ANRS CO13-HEPAVIH French cohort). Drug and Alcohol Review, doi: 10.1111/dar.12398. [Epub ahead of print]. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/wol1/doi/10.1111/dar.12398/full.
- U.S. Statistics. (n.d.). AIDS.gov. Retrieved from https://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/statistics/.