Early research shows that medical cannabis can help alleviate some symptoms of HIV and AIDS. However, there are some risks and side effects to be aware of.
Medical cannabis has been in use as an HIV and AIDs treatment for decades. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t approved any medical cannabis for the treatment of any conditions, they have approved medications that contain a synthetic substance similar to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Cannabis vs. marijuana: A complex history
The word cannabis refers to all products that come from the plant Cannabis sativa. Extracts of cannabis plants have long been used both medicinally and recreationally.
During the 1800s, medications containing cannabis were common and could be purchased at drugstores throughout the United States. Recreational cannabis was popular in certain social circles, especially among wealthier Americans.
However, smoking as a form of cannabis consumption was very rare, and the word “marijuana” wasn’t used. This changed when the aftermath of the Mexican Civil war brought a wave of 890,000 immigrants into the United States between 1910 and 1920. Smoking as a form of cannabis consumption was a part of Mexican cannabis culture.
The Great Depression in the 1930s brought a lot of hardship and a lot of anger. Many people were searching for someone or something to blame. Some U.S. lawmakers used the term “marijuana” (which may be a combination of the names Maria and Juan, although the exact origin of the word is unclear) as part of their scaremongering against immigrant populations.
A man named Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, campaigned against cannabis using racist language and associating cannabis use with Mexican and other nonwhite marginalized groups.
He specifically used the word marijuana, rather than cannabis, in his campaigning, to make the substance sound foreign and dangerous, and not like the familiar ingredient found in the cough syrup sitting in medicine cabinets all over America.
Anslinger’s racist campaign worked. In 1937, all forms of the cannabis plant were criminalized in the United States. By this time, the word marijuana had entered the mainstream American vocabulary. Today, the word is still commonly used, and most people are completely unaware of its troubling introduction to the United States.
To avoid these connotations, we prefer to use the term cannabis at Healthline.
Medical cannabis has been used as a treatment for HIV and AIDS for decades. Many people with AIDS have reported that it helps with a variety of symptoms, and some research does support this anecdotal evidence. Some of the most effective uses of cannabis as a treatment as an HIV and AIDs treatment include:
- Pain relief: Many people with AIDS experience a painful burning feeling on the skin, called neuropathic pain. It’s been reported that cannabis can help relieve this pain, although further studies are needed.
- Nausea relief: Cannabis can help control nausea and vomiting. This can help prevent severe weight loss.
- Appetite stimulation: AIDS often causes a lack of appetite. This can lead to what’s called AIDS wasting syndrome, which can cause an involuntary loss of body weight. Cannabis can stimulate appetite and help prevent AIDs wasting syndrome.
- Improving mood: Illness-related depression is common, and cannabis has been reported to have a positive effect on mood.
If you want to help improve what we know about medical cannabis and how it can help those with HIV or AIDS, you can get involved with ongoing research at ClinicalTrials.gov. Make sure to always talk with a doctor first, especially if it will involve any change to your current treatment.
Medical cannabis isn’t available everywhere. However, the legal landscape is changing rapidly. Cannabis is becoming legal in more states every year, and a handful of states allow recreational as well as medical cannabis.
Additionally, although the Federal government still classifies cannabis as an illegal Schedule I drug, President Joe Biden pardoned all prior offenses of cannabis possession on October 6th, 2022. This is widely seen as a major step toward decriminalizing cannabis on a national level. It’s important to note that no sentences for federal offenses were being served.
Currently, the laws of your state matter more than national laws when it comes to medical cannabis. You’ll need to figure out the rules for purchasing cannabis in your state, including any fees to pay and requirements to meet.
For instance, in some states, you’ll need to make an appointment with a doctor who can prescribe medical cannabis and pay a registration fee to get a medical ID card before you can purchase medical cannabis.
You can use this map to look into the rules in your state. Keep in mind that cannabis is still illegal in many states.
The risks and side effects of medical cannabis aren’t completely understood. Although some risks and consequences are known, additional studies are needed. Cannabis has been illegal for decades, and its medical use is just now reentering public discussion.
However, some medical experts are concerned that the known risks of cannabis could outweigh the potential benefits. For instance, heavy cannabis use has been linked to:
- an increased heart rate
- breathing problems in people who choose smoking as a cannabis consumption method
- aggravating some mental health symptoms in people who are predisposed to conditions such as schizophrenia
- slowed response time
- decreased sperm count
- allergies to cannabis
None of these negative effects are specific to people with HIV or AIDs. However, some people simply don’t respond well to cannabis, regardless of their overall health.
Some people report unpleasant symptoms, such as a depressed mood or nausea. Additionally, AIDS can cause difficulty with cognition and memory. This can make confusion and slow response times from cannabis, a very unwanted side effect.
Does smoking affect HIV treatment?
Smoking is a fast and effective way to get cannabis into your bloodstream. It can also pose health risks for people with HIV and AIDs.
This is because smoking can expose you to chemicals and toxins that travel into your lungs. Since people with HIV have weakened immune systems, these toxins can turn into infections quickly.
Immunocompromised people need to discuss the effects of smoking with their doctor and either get their cannabis tested for purity or purchase it from a licensed medical dispensary that can guarantee quality.
Other forms of cannabis consumption don’t carry this risk but may carry others.
Finding the best cannabis strain for HIV and AIDS symptoms will likely take a lot of trial and error. What works for one person might not help someone else with the same symptoms. However, some strains are likely treatment candidates. This includes:
- Diamond OG: This pain relieving strain of cannabis also treats stress.
- Blue diamond: This strain can treat pain and boosts your mood without making you drowsy.
- Critical Sensi star: This pain reliever can calm nausea and help you sleep.
- GG4: This strain is known for relaxing muscles and boosting mood.
- Mango: You can use this strain to increase your appetite, calm your pain, and help you sleep.
- White willow: If you need to combat fatigue, boost your appetite, and relieve pain, this strain might help.
It’s also important to note that there currently isn’t any standardization for cannabis strains. If you’re looking for specific effects, it’s best to find reviews that you trust and then locate that strain from the same grower. Medical dispensaries will be able to help you decide between the strains that they carry and let you know what results they typically produce.
CBD oil and HIV
CBD is derived from the cannabis plant, just like THC. CBD does have psychoactive effects, but it doesn’t produce euphoria. Put simply, this means it doesn’t get you high. Both THC and CBD are known to relieve pain and produce a calming effect for many people.
Due to U.S. legislation, CBD is also more widely available than THC cannabis products. Many people with HIV who don’t enjoy some of the effects of THC cannabis products use cannabis oil instead. Cannabis oil can relieve pain and promote sleep but, in low does, generally doesn’t cause confusion or other mental effects.
Medical cannabis has been part of HIV and AIDS treatment for decades. Its use as a treatment is increasing as medical cannabis becomes more mainstream.
In many states, people with HIV and AIDs can use medical cannabis in their homes and determine for themselves the strains and strengths that best relieve their symptoms. However, some experts are concerned the negative consequences of cannabis could outweigh the benefits.
More research is still needed to understand the full range of benefits and possible side effects.