A study published in 2004 showed that roughly a quarter of all AIDS patients were using cannabis as a means of pain or anxiety relief, to curb nausea, and to help improve their appetites, but this should not come as a surprise because it is widely recognized that medical marijuana's anti-emetic and analgesic properties are beneficial in the treatment of HIV and AIDS-related symptoms.
Several different organizations, including the U.K House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, the Australian National Task Force on Cannabis, and the Institute of Medicine (IOM) have reviewed the use of cannabis for AIDS treatment. The IOM's research, specifically, came to the conclusion that, "For patients such as those with AIDS or who are undergoing chemotherapy and who suffer simultaneously from severe pain, nausea, and appetite loss, cannabinoid drugs might offer broad-spectrum relief not found in any other single medication."
AIDS Wasting Syndrome
Before the invention of protease-inhibitor drugs, AIDS wasting syndrome was a common complication of HIV infection, causing extreme weight loss and cachexia (loss of weight and appetite, fatigue, and muscle atrophy), which symptoms serve to increase the debilitation of patients who are already living with compromised or failing immune systems and (in some cases) other opportunistic infections (i.e. pneumonia).
Because the common side effects of cannabis use include an increased appetite, as well as the relief of other AIDS symptoms, either medical-grade marijuana or cannabinoid drugs (drugs synthesized from cannabis), are frequently employed as alternative treatment in the United States, Canada, and Europe. In those parts of the world, such as Africa, where marijuana is not readily available or affordable, the wasting syndrome is still a significant risk for AIDS patients, and has entered the cultural vernacular as the "slim disease."
In the 1970s, human clinical trials began to catalog the ability of cannabis to stimulate both weight gain and increased food intake in healthy volunteers. In a randomized trial using actual AIDS patients, THC, a component of cannabis, was shown to significantly increase appetite and decrease nausea, as compared to the effects of taking placebos. While unwanted effects were usually moderate to mild, the trials showed that patients' moods improved, as well as their weight. These results made the case for the use of cannabis as an HIV/AIDS treatment, as determined by the American Institute of Medicine.
In addition to studying the effects of cannabis alone, a safety trial conducted by the University of California at San Francisco determined that inhaled marijuana does not interfere with the function or efficacy of protease inhibitors.
Use for Pain Relief
Since those original studies, cannabis-based drugs have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the form of Dronabinol, also known as "oral THC" or "Marinol," to be used as an appetite stimulant and anti-emitic for AIDS and cancer chemotherapy patients, and trials involving its use as a pain relief therapy are continually under way, especially since a recent study showed that over 30% of HIV/AIDS patients suffer excruciating pain in response to their anti-retroviral drug therapies.
As research into the medical benefits of cannabis continue, so will the ways it will be used to treat pain and other illnesses.