Marijuana and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)

The human immunodeficiency virus is a retrovirus that invades cells in the human immune system, making it highly susceptible to infectious diseases. According to the World Health Organization, over 500,000 Americans have died from HIV/AIDS and over one million US citizens are living with the disease.

Survey data indicates that cannabis is used by as many one in three North American patients with HIV/AIDS to treat symptoms of the disease as well as the side-effects of various antiretroviral medications, with one recent study reporting that more than 60 percent of HIV/AIDS patients self-identify as “medical cannabis users.” Patients living with HIV/AIDS most frequently report using cannabis to counter symptoms of anxiety, appetite loss, and nausea, and at least one study has reported that patients who use cannabis therapeutically are 3.3 times more likely to adhere to their antiretroviral therapy regimens than non-cannabis users

Clinical trial data indicates that cannabis use does not adversely impact CD4 and CD8 T cell counts, and may even improve immune function.

In 2007, investigators at Columbia University published clinical trial data in 2007 reporting that HIV/AIDS patients who inhaled cannabis four times daily experienced “substantial … increases in food intake … with little evidence of discomfort and no impairment of cognitive performance.” They concluded, “Smoked marijuana … has a clear medical benefit in HIV-positive [subjects]”

That same year, investigators at San Francisco General Hospital and the University of California’s Pain Clinical Research Center reported in the journal Neurology that inhaling cannabis significantly reduced HIV-associated neuropathy compared to placebo. Researchers reported that inhaling cannabis three times daily reduced patients’ pain by 34 percent. They concluded, “Smoked cannabis was well tolerated and effectively relieved chronic neuropathic pain from HIV-associated neuropathy [in a manner] similar to oral drugs used for chronic neuropathic pain.”

In 2008, researchers at the University of California at San Diego reported similar findings. Writing in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, they concluded: “Smoked cannabis … significantly reduced neuropathic pain intensity in HIV-associated … polyneuropathy compared to placebo, when added to stable concomitant analgesics. … Mood disturbance, physical disability, and quality of life all improved significantly during study treatment. … Our findings suggest that cannabinoid therapy may be an effective option for pain relief in patients with medically intractable pain due to HIV.”

As a result, many experts now believe that “marijuana represents another treatment option in [the] health management” of patients with HIV/AIDS.

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