How Cannabis Helps HIV Patients

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that damages the immune system and inhibits the body’s ability to fight infection and disease. It is an infection that is normally transmitted sexually, but it can also spread from a mother to a child during pregnancy or when breastfeeding. Another common form of HIV transmission is when contact is made with infected blood. Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a condition caused by the lack of treatment of HIV. Over several years, HIV weakens the immune system to the extent that potentially life-threatening AIDS is present. While there is currently no cure for either HIV or AIDS, medications have been developed that significantly slow HIV progression.

cannabis hiv patients

Early HIV symptoms can be mild or severe, depending on the individual. Fever, headaches and swollen lymph glands are most common, but aches, pains, rashes, cough and diarrhea can also occur. As the virus grows in the body and the immune system weakens, infections and more chronic presentation of symptoms will be evident, along with extreme weight loss in the form of wasting syndrome. Some rare diseases like Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a kind of skin cancer, also develop, as does peripheral neuropathy, which causes excruciating pain and/or loss of sensation in the hands and the feet. Thankfully, the majority of people in this country who develop HIV can seek treatment that prevents the progression to AIDS. This is not always the case in the developing world. Those who do develop AIDS are prone to diseases like rare cancers that would normally not occur in a healthy body.

Cannabis For HIV Treatment

cannabis hiv treatment
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Marijuana and HIV have a decades-long history. The initial pushes (ultimately successful) for legalization were prompted by the desire to alleviate the devastating symptoms associated with HIV and AIDS as the pharmaceutical community slowly worked to find a cure. Activists on the front lines of the HIV/AIDS crisis in San Francisco in the late 1980s and ‘90s like Dennis Peron and Mary Jane Rathbun were instrumental in the fight to legalize cannabis for medical use and a significant motivator was the idea of using marijuana for HIV treatment.

Peron was particularly involved in the push to legalize, now he is known as the “Father of Medical Marijuana.” After his partner, Jonathan West, died of an AIDS-related illness in 1990, he founded the Cannabis Buyers’ Club of San Francisco in 1994 to enable HIV, AIDS and cancer patients to access weed for medical care. He then authored Proposition 215, a voter initiative that passed in 1996 and is known as the Compassionate Care Act. That piece of legislation was critical to the evolution of medical marijuana legalization and ultimately legal adult use at the state level.

The use of cannabis for HIV treatment began when members of the community suffering from the virus realized that its therapeutic properties aligned well with their symptoms. As an appetite enhancer, marijuana allowed HIV-positive men and women to find the urge to eat and fight the weight loss caused by the virus and AIDS. The THC brownies provided by people like Rathbun were ideal because they had calories, induced appetite and did not require smoking. It relieved muscle soreness and chronic pain, and as an anti-inflammatory, marijuana helped ease both nausea occurring because of the virus and nausea caused by early anti-HIV synthetic medications like protease inhibitors. Some of those medications cause severe nausea and have other side effects like lack of smell, change in how things taste, and insomnia. Those effects can be so severe that they prompt those with HIV to stop taking the medications.

Another common symptom of HIV and/or AIDS is anxiety. The fear of not knowing what the future holds or how long one might have to live is debilitating. Cannabis has provided relief to countless people with HIV who suffer from apprehension and unease.

Although not enough studies have been performed to scientifically confirm its efficacy (due to a variety of reasons, but primarily legal restrictions and red tape) there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence that cannabis is very helpful in combatting those effects. Thankfully, as restrictions ease and the opportunity to legally conduct tests on HIV becomes more possible, there are and will continue to be more work done to confirm what thousands of HIV and AIDS sufferers already know.

The fact that HIV and AIDS are on almost all the lists of conditions that make people eligible for medical marijuana in states where it is legal is paramount. The work of activists like Peron and Rathbun has not been in vain. Of the 36 states and four territories where cannabis products are legal, all list HIV as a valid condition to receive a medical marijuana card to access cannabis for treatment.

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Where's Weed

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