How Does Marijuana Help HIV/AIDS?

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Marijuana is recognized for its potential to alleviate common side effects associated with HIV/AIDS medication, such as loss of appetite, depression, nausea, and fatigue. More significantly, recent research suggests that cannabis may slow the progression of the disease. Studies indicate that chronic administration of Delta-9 THC, a component of cannabis, can mitigate disease progression, reduce viral load and tissue inflammation, thereby decreasing morbidity and mortality. While the exact mechanism of cannabis's influence is still under investigation, theories point to its anti-inflammatory properties and potential to suppress HIV replication.
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In addition to easing common side effects associated with HIV/AIDS medication, researchers now believe cannabis may actually slow disease progression. CannaMD takes a closer look at the groundbreaking studies challenging conventional thought.

What is HIV/AIDS?

The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) weakens immune system functioning by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection. HIV advances in three stages:

  • Acute HIV
  • Clinical latency
  • Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS)

Acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is the most severe phase of HIV infection. Patients with AIDS are extremely susceptible to severe illnesses, known as opportunistic infections.

There is currently no effective cure; however, with proper medical care, HIV can be controlled. Recent research suggests the life expectancy of patients who undergo antiretroviral therapy (ART) is almost that of individuals who do not have the disease.

Unfortunately, many patients don’t have access to necessary treatment. Even those who do struggle with a number of medication side effects, including: loss of appetite, depression, nausea, fatigue, trouble sleeping, and more.

Marijuana and HIV/AIDS

Cannabis has long been recognized as an effective treatment for HIV/AIDS symptoms and medication side effects. According to a 2004 study published by the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome:

A substantial percentage of cannabis users viewed it as beneficial for relief of symptoms commonly associated with HIV/AIDS. Relief from anxiety and depression were among the most frequently reported reasons for smoking cannabis, followed by appetite stimulation and relief of nausea.

As researchers note:

This finding is particularly relevant to issues of antiretroviral medication adherence. Nausea and anorexia are frequently cited as reasons for delayed or missed doses and discontinuation of ART.

In fact, Dronabinol (Marinol), a synthetic form of marijuana cannabinoid THC, is approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treatment of HIV-associated loss of appetite. (For more on THC and Marinol, see the Journal of Analytical Toxicology.)

However, marijuana may do more than just offer symptom relief. In 2012, researchers announced:

Data from our controlled studies in non-human primates show chronic Delta-9 THC administration prior to and during simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) infection ameliorates disease progression, and attenuates viral load and tissue inflammation, significantly reducing morbidity and mortality.

Note: Simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) is an HIV-like virus that infects monkeys and can cause a disease similar to AIDS; researchers often study SIV to learn more about HIV/AIDS.

While it’s unclear how exactly cannabis exerts its influence (study authors describe the question as “complicated due to the multiplicity of cannabinoid-mediated effects”), one theory points to marijuana’s anti-inflammatory properties:

Uncontrolled HIV replication activates the immune system resulting in production of pro-inflammatory cytokines […] Several lines of evidence indicate that cannabinoid immunomodulation results from cell-mediated events including attenuated cytokine production, decreased inflammatory cell recruitment, and protection from injury resulting from release of toxic mediators by infected cells.

Researchers are also exploring the possibility that marijuana lowers viral replication by mediating neuroinflammation. Additional studies suggest cannabinoid receptor agonists may even work directly to suppress HIV-replication.

New HIV/AIDS marijuana research

In 2017, the National Institute on Drug Abuse awarded the University of Florida $3.2 million to investigate marijuana’s role in helping HIV patients. Speaking of the planned four-year study, head researcher Robert L. Cook explains:

I’ve seen some very interesting data that looked at just how much of the virus is in people’s blood before they were treated with antiretrovirals. The research showed that those who used marijuana had a lower amount of the virus in their blood compared to those who didn’t use marijuana. That’s a good thing if there is a lower amount of the virus. But I haven’t seen any clinical trials looking at the direct effects of THC on the virus. We also don’t have a lot research comparing THC alone versus THC and CBD on people with HIV.

We’re also measuring the inflammatory response to marijuana in a much more carefully controlled way than in previous studies.

Cook hopes to expand on research areas that are currently lacking. For updates on his progress, be sure to subscribe and follow CannaMD on Facebook.

Patient experiences

As scientists work to understand marijuana’s therapeutic effects, patients are more than happy to contribute success stories. Speaking of his own experience, former San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Keith Vines writes:

I found that it took only two or three puffs from a marijuana cigarette for my appetite to return. Moreover, the beneficial effect took place within minutes rather than the hours that I sometimes waited after swallowing a Marinol capsule.

Doctor and author, Kate Scannell, validates such accounts, concisely summarizing the HIV/cannabis debate :

From working with AIDS and cancer patients, I repeatedly saw how marijuana could ameliorate a patient’s debilitating fatigue, restore appetite, diminish pain, remedy nausea, cure vomiting, and curtail down-to-the-bone weight loss. The federal obsession with a political agenda that keeps marijuana out of the hands of sick and dying people is appalling and irrational.

Updated: May 21, 2024

Article Written By:

Jessica Walters

Jessica Walters serves as CannaMD's Chief Medical Researcher. Prior to her time at CannaMD, Jessica earned her degree from Harvard where she focused on neuropsychology. Her personal research interests include psychosocial interventions for obesity, depression, and generalized anxiety disorders.


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