Cannabis and HIV/AIDS

A Guide To Cannabis and CBD for HIV/AIDS

Cannabis and HIV/AIDS have been connected since the 1980s. People have been treating HIV with cannabis since the beginning and medicinal cannabis was first championed by activists to alleviate the symptoms of AIDS. In fact, Dennis Peron, whose partner died of AIDS in 1990, co-authored California Proposition 215. This is the law that permits the use of medical marijuana in the state, the first of its kind nationwide. This law is still in place in California today.

In 1996, Peron told the Associated Press that when his partner died,  “I didn’t know what I was living for. I was the loneliest guy in America. In my pain, I decided to leave Jonathan a legacy of love. I made it my moral pursuit to let everyone know about Jonathan’s life, his death, and his use of marijuana and how it gave him dignity in his final days.”

Peron was involved in opening, The San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club, which is believed to be America’s first public dispensary. The dispensary became a well-known resource for individuals with HIV and AIDS. Its purpose was simple: Come in for support and camaraderie, as well as an opportunity to buy cannabis. Their goal was to ease the pain and discomfort of all individuals with AIDS. And if you were short on funds? No worries. You’d be taken care of. 

What is HIV?

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the bodies immune system (the cells that help the body fight infection), which makes a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases. Meningitis, pneumonia, encephalitis, tuberculosis, chronic diarrhea, and cancers are some examples of these infections. If not treated, the advancement of HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS, the most severe phase of HIV infection.

It is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a person with HIV, most commonly during unprotected sex (sex without a condom or HIV medicine to prevent or treat HIV), or through sharing injection drug equipment.

For more information on the stages of HIV and the symptoms check out HIV.gov 

Treatment for HIV

With HIV medicine (called antiretroviral therapy or ART), people with HIV can live long and healthy lives and prevent transmission of the disease. In addition, there are effective methods to prevent getting HIV through sex or drug use, including pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) (source).

There a few different types of ART medications and often individuals are taking more than one to prevent the development of treatment-resistant viruses. The side effects vary some depending on the medication but many short term side effects include:

  • Feeling tired
  • Nausea (upset stomach)
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Muscle pain
  • Occasional dizziness 
  • Insomnia

There are also more severe and longer-term side effects that can occur, like kidney problems, liver damage, heart disease, etc. Read more about these side effects at aidsinfo.nih.gov

Cannabis can be used to help manage a large number of these side effects. 

Cannabis and HIV/AIDS

HIV was first identified in the 1980s and early generation HIV drugs often had debilitating side effects. So, cannabis was used not only to treat the disease but the side effects of the medications since the beginning.  

Though the side effects are no longer as severe, people with HIV are still choosing to use cannabis as one method of treatment. Today there are a number of studies supporting the effectiveness of cannabis in treating HIV/AIDS related symptoms. Here we will discuss five symptoms cannabis helps to alleviate and the research behind each.

What the Research Says

Stimulates Appetite  A 2005 survey conducted found that “143 (27%) of the respondents used cannabis to manage their symptoms; of those, an overwhelming 97% reported that they experienced improvements in appetite”.
Alleviates Nausea  A 2005 study found that with HIV-positive patients experiencing nausea, those who used cannabis were more likely to adhere to their antiretroviral therapies than non-users. And adherence to ART medication is extremely important to the successful overall treatment of HIV. 
Reduces Anxiety and Improves Mood Anxiety and depression are common among those with HIV as a result of a combination of the negative physiological, psychological and social pressures. 

In a 2007 study, researchers found that cannabis improved respondents’ mood and caused a ‘good drug effect’ that increased feelings of euphoria and self-confidence.

Check out our education portal for more information about cannabis and anxiety and depression

Chronic Pain Relief  HIV is known to cause severe pain that arises from complex sources, including joints, nerves, and muscles. A study from McGill University evaluated the safety of cannabis use over 1 year. Results showed participants reported a reduction in pain and an increased quality of life. 

Check out our education portal for more information about cannabis and chronic pain.

Decreases Peripheral Neuropathic Pain Peripheral neuropathy is a complex and chronic condition that results from damage to the sensory, motor and automatic nerves. For patients with HIV/AIDS, peripheral neuropathy can be caused by the virus itself, treatment medication, vitamin deficiency, or as a result of infections. Recently, cannabis has been found to help people suffering from neuropathy by relieving the pain associated with the disorder.
A 2010 study found “a single inhalation of 25mg of 9.4% THC 3x daily for 5 days reduced the intensity of pain and improved sleep.” 

Cannabis for Treating HIV: More than just symptoms 

Studies have started to investigate the impact of cannabis on the immune system. Evidence shows that cannabis has a positive effect on the immune system and researchers want to understand it better. If cannabis has a positive impact on the immune system it would not only treat the symptoms of HIV and ART medication. But also help manage the cause of the problems associated with the disease. 

HIV harms the immune system by attacking white blood cells called CD4 T cells. These naturally help our immune system kill off pathogens. So, these studies look at the number of CD4 T cells as well as the amount of HIV in the blood (which is considered the viral load). These are used to determine how many white blood cells (CD4 T) the person has to protect their body and how much HIV is in the blood to continue to attack and damage these cells. 

What the Research Says

  1. Blue Dream: This hybrid is well balanced and a good choice for a cannabis newbie as well as someone with more experience. Blue Dream is a good choice for HIV/AIDS patients because it’s known to improve mood and ease many types of pain.
  2. Cheese: Cheese is a popular strain that’s been reported to stimulate appetite, ease pain, and combat nausea.
  3. Durban Berry: This strain gives you the best of both worlds: It relaxes and stimulates your appetite. Durban Berry is a well-balanced hybrid that won’t affect your ability to carry on with daily activities.
  4. Fruit Punch: Depression, stress, fatigue, and anxiety are common conditions that develop alongside HIV. The Sativa-dominant Fruit Punch strain provides some relief by delivering a relaxing tropical flavour with potent antidepressant effects.
  5. Sour Diesel: With a high-THC content, Sour Diesel is an energizing strain that’s most suitable for experienced cannabis consumers. It’s also been reported to help reduce stress and depression.

Read more about cannabis strains at CannaSOS.

How Does Cannabis Interact with HIV Medication

We often warn people to be aware of the possible interactions cannabis and CBD can have with medications. In this case, cannabis is recommended as a use for the side effects of medication. But it is always good to be cautious when it comes to cannabis and medication, therefore we always recommend speaking to your doctor about using cannabis.

Read this personal story by Benjamin Adam in MerryJane about his experience with HIV medication and using cannabis.

Patient Testimonials

Check out the Apthocarium for patient testimonials on the effects of cannabis on HIV symptoms.

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