Since the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, LGBTQ activists have fought for patient access to medical cannabis. In the 1980s and ‘90s, this community pushed for legal access, established compassion clubs, and eventually set the wheels in motion for the widespread legalization we see today.
Long before the development of more modern medical interventions, those living with HIV/AIDS relied on cannabis to alleviate the many challenging symptoms including stress, anxiety, and pain. To this day, research tells us medical cannabis is still an essential tool for patients with this lifelong disease.
What’s more, it could help with much more beyond just providing relief.
Patients with AIDS/HIV Fought for Access From the Beginning
In the beginning, people living with HIV/AIDS who relied on medical cannabis did so in secret. It wasn’t until 1990 that legal use tentatively began.
Patients seeking medical cannabis have Bob Randall to thank. This Washington, DC, man, who struggled with the debilitating effects of glaucoma, fought a cannabis conviction in 1976 based on medical necessity. During the case, he claimed cannabis was the only way he could prevent his disease from rendering him completely blind.
He won and became the first legal medical cannabis patient in the US.
Randall’s case led to the creation of the Compassionate Investigational New Drug (IND) program. This program allowed patients with chronic diseases access to federally cultivated cannabis. In 1990, a Florida court granted two people with HIV access to cannabis under this Compassion IND program. News quickly spread among the HIV-positive community, and within only a few years, this federal program accepted an additional 28 patients.
Unfortunately, the 1990s were the height of the War on Drugs, and the government terminated this program in 1992. But by this time, word has spread about the benefits of cannabis for the lifelong effects of an HIV/AIDS diagnosis.
As more patients began seeking relief from medical cannabis, cannabis advocates began taking up the cause. One of the biggest proponents for legal access was Dennis Peron, who opened a Cannabis Buyers Club in San Francisco. His fierce fight to help patients access cannabis gave the cause local and national attention.
Eventually, this led to financial and political support from across the country. By 1996, this had evolved into Proposition 215, which passed with 56 percent approval. This law was the first of its kind and finally allowed patients with a physician recommendation access to the medicine they needed.
Cannabis Provides Relief for Patients with AIDS/HIV
As legalization spreads, it has become much easier for patients living with AIDS/HIV to access medical cannabis. As a result, medical cannabis has become a popular tool for patients with this condition to improve well-being and provide relief.
A 2014 The Canadian Journal of Infectious Diseases & Medical Microbiology reported that almost 40 percent of HIV/AIDS patients surveyed used cannabis. While the vast majority confirmed that cannabis provided recreational benefits, 21 percent described medical benefits.
A more recent systematic review stated 77 percent of patients living with HIV/AIDs disclosed lifetime cannabis use.
In 2019, a survey among patients living with HIV/AIDS discovered more than 55 percent used cannabis frequently (daily). Most smoked dry flower, with 12 percent vaping and 21 percent choosing edibles.
The most prevalent reasons for use included targeting anxiety, stress, and pain. Forty-seven percent reported cannabis was quite effective or “extremely effective” at soothing their symptoms, with side effects that “were not bothersome at all.”
Clearly, medical cannabis consumption within this demographic is common and perhaps increasingly socially acceptable.
Cannabis Helps Reduce Neurological Inflammation Among Patients Living With HIV
One of the most recent studies in this landscape came from the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
A team working out of the University of California recently published findings on central nervous system inflammation and cannabis use among people with HIV. They set out to discover if cannabis use (and frequency of use) impacted inflammatory biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid. Neuroinflammation often continues even despite suppressive antiretroviral therapy, perhaps in as many as 50 percent of people.
The authors theorized that cannabis’ antiinflammatory properties could reduce the neural inflammation and related cognitive impairment common among patients with this disease. After dividing the 263 patients into four groups based on HIV status, cannabis use, and frequency of use, they measured inflammatory biomarkers and seven cognitive domains.
At the end of the study, it was clear that daily cannabis consumption among the HIV+ group led to reduced neuroinflammation, “with possible downstream benefits for cognition.” Between the groups assessed in this study, the HIV+ group who consumed cannabis daily did much better in several cognitive measures than the HIV+ group of non-consumers and the group of infrequent consumers.
As the authors note, more research is needed to explore specific cannabinoids and how prolonged cannabis use for a lifelong disease could impact brain function.
Medical Cannabis May Provide More Than Just Relief for HIV/AIDS
Supported by earlier research, this study helps establish a future for medical cannabis as a medically legitimate intervention for patients with HIV.
Based on cannabis’ proven antiinflammatory benefits, it might provide much more than stress and pain relief. It could target some of the most challenging systems of this disease.