Acquired Immuno Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) refers to a specific group of diseases or conditions resulting from severe suppression of the immune system. Scientists have identified the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, to be the infectious agent causing AIDS. HIV destroys the immune system by attacking T-cells in the blood . Like chemotherapy for cancer patients, the standard treatments for HIV infection are highly toxic. Conventional drugs used to treat HIV infection such as zidovudine (AZT), lamivudine (3TC) and various protease inhibitors cause significant nausea, so patients have difficulty withstanding treatment. The nausea also heightens the loss of appetite and weight associated with AIDS. This can lead to a condition known as AIDS wasting syndrome. Wasting syndrome is one of the leading causes of death from AIDS, as it leaves the body weak and susceptible to rare cancers and unusual infections.
Marijuana not only helps people with AIDS combat nausea and improve their appetite, it relieves their muscle spasms, chronic fatigue and pain. People with AIDS who use marijuana to survive are probably the fastest growing group of medical marijuana patients today. They comprise the majority of members of cannabis buyers clubs in major California cities — 70% in Los Angeles and 90% in San Francisco. It is reasonable to conclude that with the rise in the epidemic over the last two decades, and with the increased toxicity of AIDS treatments, the number of people using marijuana to medicate themselves will continue to increase.
From the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, opponents of medicinal use of marijuana have argued that it is particularly harmful to people with AIDS because of adverse effects on the immune system. This followed unconfirmed reports in the early 1970’s that marijuana weakened the body’s response to disease. Several researchers have since been unable to find supporting evidence that cannabinoids actually harm or reduce the number of T-cells in the body. In spite of all the claims, in 1992 the Food and Drug Administration officially approved the use of synthetic THC (Marinol) in the treatment of AIDS wasting syndrome.
The real risks involved with smoking marijuana for people with AIDS are the risk of contamination and the risk of lowering resistance to respiratory infections with long term heavy use. These risks can generally be avoided by ingesting marijuana rather than smoking it, and by sterilizing marijuana that comes from an unknown source.
- There have been contradictory claims about marijuana’s safety and effectiveness in treating people with AIDS. From the beginning of the epidemic, opponents of the medical use of marijuana have argued that it is particularly harmful to people with AIDS because of adverse effects on the immune system. This followed unconfirmed reports in the early 1970s that marijuana weakened the body’s response to disease.
- Following these reports, several researchers tried to find supporting evidence. In one such study, Gabriel Nahas tested the effect of marijuana on the body’s immune function, using T-cells extracted from the blood of both marijuana users and nonusers. Nahas claimed to find evidence that marijuana weakened the immune system, making the body more susceptible to disease. However, other researchers could not duplicate Dr. Nahas’s results.
- Beginning in 1984, 345 HIV+ men without AIDS were evaluated over a six year period by Drs. Matthew Di Franco et al. in the San Francisco Men’s Health Study. The purpose of the study was to assess the effects of specific recreational drugs and alcohol on the possible progression of AIDS symptoms. The resulting data from the study suggested no substantial association between the use of psychoactive drugs and the development of AIDS among HIV infected men. Marijuana use, specifically, was associated with a decreased rate of progression to AIDS and was more common among individuals who were more healthy at baseline.
- In 1985, at Johns Hopkins University, Drs. Richard W. Foltin, Joseph V. Brady and Marian W. Fischman conducted a study on marijuana’s effects on food intake in humans. Nine adult male resided in residential laboratory for up to 25 days. Subjects given marijuana cigarettes or cigarettes with a placebo. The administration of two or three active marijuana cigarettes containing low concentrations of THC during social access period increased average daily caloric intake by about 20%. The mean number of calories consumed daily under marijuana conditions (2900-4400 calories) was consistently greater than consumed daily under placebo conditions (2400-3400 calories) for eight of the nine subjects participating in the study.
- In 1988, another study by Drs. Richard W. Foltin et al. appeared in Appetite. When 6 adult male volunteers under similar conditions as the previous study smoked 4 marijuana cigarettes with higher concentrations of THC daily, the mean daily caloric intake increased by nearly 40%.
- In 1989, the Journal of the American Medical Association featured a study by Drs. Richard Kaslow et al. on the role of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs in accelerating immunodeficiency in HIV-1-positive individuals. The study concluded that the use of alcohol and psychoactive substances (including marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, and opiates) did not enhance the progression of human immunodeficiency virus infection or contribute to a greater decline in T cell counts.
- In 1995, at the University of California in San Francisco, AIDS researcher, Dr. Donald Abrams, initiated a study to compare the effectiveness of Marinol verses smoked marijuana. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted approval to launch the study. However, under federal law, all marijuana used in research must come form the federal marijuana farm in Mississippi that is under control of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). NIDA denied Dr. Abrams access to the marijuana he needed for his FDA approved research. More recently, following the passage of Proposition 215 in California, and the resulting increased pressure on the federal government to allow marijuana research, Abrams finally got the green light and is proceeding with a scaled down version of his original research proposal.
- In August of 1997, a National Institutes of Health scientific panel concluded that while the unique compounds found in marijuana called cannabinoids do suppress some immune responses, they also tend to enhance others. In particular, there has been no evidence that cannabinoids actually harm or reduce the number of T-cells in people infected with HIV.