The effectiveness of cannabis for treating symptoms related to HIV/AIDS is widely recognized. Its value as an anti-emetic and analgesic has been proven in numerous studies and has been recognized by several comprehensive, government-sponsored reviews, including those conducted by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), the U.K. House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, the Australian National Task Force on Cannabis, and others.
The IOM concluded, "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." Research published in 2004 found that nearly one-quarter of AIDS patients were using cannabis. A majority reported relief of anxiety and/or depression and improved appetite, while nearly a third said it also increased pleasure and provided relief of pain.
AIDS wasting syndrome was a very frequent complication of HIV infection prior to the advent of protease-inhibitor drugs, and has been associated with major weight loss and cachexia, conditions that further debilitate its victims, who are already weakened by immune system failure and opportunistic infections. Cannabis has been a frequently employed alternative medicine for the condition, particularly in the USA, because of its reported benefits on appetite and amelioration of other AIDS symptoms. In the rest of the world, where such medications are seldom affordable, AIDS wasting remains a common problem to the extent that it is known in Africa as 'slim disease'.
Research findings on cannabis and HIV/AIDS
Beginning in the 1970s, a series of human clinical trials established cannabis' ability to stimulate food intake and weight gain in healthy volunteers. In a randomized trial in AIDS patients, THC significantly improved appetite and nausea in comparison with placebo. There were also trends towards improved mood and weight gain. Unwanted effects were generally mild or moderate in intensity. The possible benefit of cannabis in AIDS made it one of the lead indications for such treatment in the judgment of the Institute of Medicine in their study.[17-23]
A preliminary safety trial conducted at the University of California at San Francisco found that inhaled cannabis does not interfere with the effectiveness of protease inhibitors in patients suffering from HIV or AIDS. It also found that patients in the study who used cannabis gained weight.
Dronabinol (a.k.a. "Marinol" or oral THC) is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as an anti-emetic and appetite stimulant for patients undergoing cancer chemotherapy or suffering from AIDS. The FDA approved the drug for this use in 1992 after several clinical trials determined it stimulated weight gain in HIV-infected patients. In one study, 70 percent of patients administered Marinol (oral THC) gained weight.
The 1999 report by the IOM concluded: "It is well recognized that Marinol's oral route of administration hampers its effectiveness because of slow absorption and patients' desire for more control over dosing. ... In contrast, inhaled marijuana is rapidly absorbed." In a series of U.S. state studies in the 1980s, cancer patients given a choice between using inhaled marijuana and oral THC overwhelmingly chose cannabis.
While the benefits of cannabis for HIV/AIDS patients are well established, research continues around the world. Current research indicates that cannabis or cannabinoid therapies may provide an effective treatment option for HIV/AIDs patients suffering from painful neuropathy and wasting syndrome. The appetite-stimulating properties of cannabis are well-known and have been demonstrated in numerous studies, and patients with various pain syndromes report significant relief from cannabis. This is particularly true for patients suffering from neuropathic pain, a difficult-to-treat symptom commonly associated with HIV/AIDS and a variety of other illnesses or conditions.
In 2002, researchers began a Canadian government-sponsored trial evaluating the appetite-enhancing effects of smoked cannabis in HIV/AIDS, the safety of short-term exposure cannabis, its interaction with HIV medications, and its effects on nausea, pain, mood and neuro-cognitive function. Since 2004, New South Wales in Australia has made cannabis available to HIV/AIDS patients and other seriously ill individuals for both research and compassionate use.
The University of California's Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research has conducted three HIV/AIDS related studies: two on cannabis as treatment for neuropathy, a condition which afflicts AIDS, diabetes and other patients with severe tingling and pain in their hands and feet, and one on how repeated treatment with cannabis affects the driving ability of patients with HIV-related neuropathy.
Over 30% of patients with HIV/AIDS suffer from excruciating pain in the nerve endings (polyneuropathies, nueropathy),in response to the antiretroviral therapies that constitute the first line of treatment for HIV/AIDS.[29-31] But, there is no approved treatment for such pain that is satisfactory for a majority of patients. As a result, some patients must reduce or discontinue their HIV/AIDS therapy because they can neither tolerate nor eliminate the debilitating side effects of the antiretroviral first-line medications.
In fact, British researchers have recently reported that cannabis extract sprayed under the tongue was effective in reducing pain in 18 of 23 patients who were suffering from intractable pain. This finding is corroborated by studies in which cannabinoids have been shown to be effective analgesics in animal pain models.
In 2006, the chief of Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital published a clinical study which demonstrated that smoked cannabis can effectively treat HIV associated painful neuropathy, and is comparable to other drugs on the market. 50 patients completed the study which involved 5 days of smoking 3 joints (3.56% THC) per day and recording pain scores. Over half of the patients found a 30% reduction in pain, and the first cannabis cigarette of each day reduced pain scores by over 70% on average. Unlike conventional therapies, no serious adverse effects were reported.
In the last few years, clinical studies on smoked cannabis for HIV neuropathy have produced even more promising results. A research team at UC Davis Medical Center conducted a double blind, placebo-controlled crossover study of 38 patients with HIV neuropathic pain. The participants smoked cannabis with a THC content of 7% or 3.5 % THC. They were scheduled for three 6-hour sessions, which were separated by at least 3 days. Their pain was significantly alleviated by cannabis and the side effects were well tolerated.
Similar results were obtained by researchers at UC San Diego with a study of 34 patients who were not responsive to other pain medication (i.e. opiates). Over the course of the study, participants received both cannabis (THC of 1-8%) and placebo (no THC) cigarettes, which were smoked four times daily for five days. The patients continued to use their regular pain medication during the whole study. The team found that 46 percent of the patients who completed the study gained pain relief from cannabis of more than 30 percent.
Basic research has also demonstrated that derivatives of the cannabis plant hold promise for for slowing the progression of HIV/AIDS. Researchers from Germany and Spain have investigated the effects of various cannabis extracts on the virus in vivo and found that certain extracts could inhibit HIV replication. Upon further research, a non-cannabinoid component of cannabis called Denbinobin was demonstrated to be mostly responsible for the inhibition of HIV replication. Denbinobin was shown to directly interfere with a replication protein called NF-KB (NF-kappa B), which is considered a good target for HIV therapies because it contributes to a wide variety of cellular processes.
Efficacy and side effects: how cannabis compares
The many medications currently employed to fight HIV/AIDS include many that produce serious side effects, including severe nerve pain, nausea and wasting. These side effects frequently threaten the health of the patient and require other medications to combat them.
Drugs commonly prescribed against AIDS-related weight loss include megestrol acetate (Megace), an anticachectic. Serious side effects of this medicine include high blood pressure, diabetes, inflammation of the blood vessels, congestive heart failure, seizures, and pneumonia. Less serious side effects of this medicine include diarrhea, flatulence, nausea, vomiting, constipation, heartburn, dry mouth, increased salivation, and thrush; impotence, decreased libido, urinary frequency, urinary incontinence, urinary tract infection, vaginal bleeding and discharge (including breakthrough bleeding); disease of the heart muscle, palpitation, chest pain, chest pressure, and edema; shortness of breath, cough, pharyngitis, lung disorders, and rapid breathing; insomnia, headache, weakness, numbness, confusion, seizures, depression, and abnormal thinking.
Synthetic human growth hormones, such as Somatropin, also known as Genotropin, Humatrope, Norditropin, Nutropin, Nutropin AQ, Saizen, and Serostim, are also prescribed for AIDS wasting syndrome. Serious side effects of this medicine include: abdominal pain or swelling of the stomach; cancer; decrease in red blood cells; diarrhea; enlargement of face, hands, or feet; fever; headache; high blood pressure; high blood sugar; increased sweating; limp or pain in hip or knee; loss of appetite; pain in ear(s); pain and swelling where the shot was given; pain and tingling of fingers and toes; protein in the urine; rapid heart beat; severe tiredness; skin rash or itching; stomach upset; swelling of lymph nodes; trouble sleeping; vision changes; and vomiting. Less serious side effects of this medicine include: enlargement of breasts; increased growth of birthmarks; joint pain; muscle pain; swelling of hands, feet, or lower legs; unusual tiredness or weakness; and wrist pain.
Testosterone and anabolic steroids are being studied for use against AIDS wasting, as is Thalidomide, a drug that was taken off the market in the 1960s when it was found to cause severe birth defects.
Opiod analgesics are commonly prescribed to combat the polyneuropathy associated with HIV/AIDS. The opioid analgesics commonly used to combat pain include codeine (Dolacet, Hydrocet, Lorcet, Lortab, Vicodin); morphine (Avinza, Oramorph); Oxycodone (Oxycontin, Roxicodone, Percocet, Roxicet); propoxyphene (Darvon, Darvocet) and tramadol (Ultram, Ultracet). These medicines can cause psychological and physical dependence, as well as constipation, dizziness, lightheadedness, mood changes, nausea, sedation, shortness of breath and vomiting. Taking high doses or mixing with alcohol can slow down breathing, a potentially fatal condition.
Cannabis: By comparison, the side effects associated with cannabis are typically mild and are classified as "low risk." Euphoric mood changes are among the most frequent side effects. Cannabinoids can exacerbate schizophrenic psychosis in predisposed persons. Cannabinoids impede cognitive and psychomotor performance, resulting in temporary impairment. Chronic use can lead to the development of tolerance. Tachycardia and hypotension are frequently documented as adverse events in the cardiovascular system. A few cases of myocardial ischemia have been reported in young and previously healthy patients. Inhaling the smoke of cannabis cigarettes induces side effects on the respiratory system. Cannabinoids are contraindicated for patients with a history of cardiac ischemias. In summary, a low risk profile is evident from the literature available. Serious complications are very rare and are not usually reported during the use of cannabinoids for medical indications.
THE EXPERIENCE OF PATIENTS
I am an Assistant District Attorney for the City and County of San Francisco, a position I have held since 1985. I am a retired Air Force Captain and JAG Corps prosecutor, a former foot soldier in the war on drugs, and the proud father of a son who will turn 18 this summer. I am also an AIDS patient who credits medical marijuana as an important link to saving my life.
To stimulate my appetite one of my physicians prescribed Marinol, a synthetic derivative of THC, which is one of the main active ingredients of marijuana. I found, however, that I could not tolerate Marinol's harsh and unpredictable side effects - side effects that I tried to endure despite only a marginal improvement in appetite. Not infrequently, a single Marinol capsule would make me feel "stoned" for several hours, such that I was unable to function at a level at which I felt comfortable or competent. Other times the Marinol put me right to sleep. Because I continued to work full-time as an Assistant District Attorney, this was for me an unacceptable state of affairs. I need to be at the top of my game. Marinol deprived me of something I have always valued deeply: a sense of control over my mind and body.
I informed my physicians that I could no longer tolerate the Marinol because of the unacceptable side effects. At that point, two of my doctors suggested that I try marijuana. They explained that in their practices, they had observed that for many AIDS patients, smoking marijuana stimulated appetite better than its synthetic cousin, and did so without many of the deleterious side effects of Marinol. . .
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. Because I only required a small dose to stimulate my appetite, I did not need to get stoned in order to eat. . . I remain on my growth hormone therapy and I continue to take 15-20 pills a day as part of my antiviral and vitamin regimens. I also use medical marijuana as needed to stimulate my appetite.
My marijuana use is quite modest. I find that I need to take a couple of puffs only two or three times a week, in the evenings, in order to eat. There are also periods of weeks at a time when the marijuana is unnecessary. I do not smoke before or during business hours. I have not become addicted to marijuana.
I continue to work, as I have for the past 12 years, as a city and county prosecutor. The thought processes and motor skills that I use on the job are not the least impaired by the couple of puffs of cannabis I occasionally take before an evening meal. I am not a danger to myself or others. Perhaps most important, I am not wasting away. I am still contributing to society rather than draining its resources. I am thriving on my own, rather than existing as a burden - either financially or emotionally - to my family, friends, or the government.
Daniel J. Kane
Wasting syndrome, in combination with other HIV-related symptoms and conditions, left me thoroughly disabled and desperate to obtain relief. I suffered severe nausea, chronic exhaustion and physical weakness, neurological complications, persistent anxiety, and a total loss of appetite. It was my impression, confirmed by my doctor, that these symptoms were likely caused, or exacerbated, by one or more of the 11 different prescription drugs I had taken for some time. I was dangerously malnourished and the symptoms persisted. I became too ill to ingest the pills that lay at the core of my treatment. Despite my attempts, I simply could not swallow them with any regularity. When I did swallow them, I rarely kept them down. I also tried suppositories for the nausea and the pain, but I was physically unable to tolerate them either. I was warned that my treatment would not work if I could not comply with the protocol.
. . . In August of 1996, after several prescription medications had given me no relief, my doctor informed me that marijuana, in small quantities, might act as both an anti-nauseant and an appetite stimulant. I tried smoking marijuana to combat the nausea. I found that it reduced my nausea and restored my appetite, allowing me to eat and regain my strength with no noticeable side effects. Having tried the other medications, I know from personal experience that, at least for me, nothing compares to marijuana in terms of results. I use marijuana only a few times a week - sometimes less - but since I started, I have been able to eat and I've regained weight, muscle mass and hope. That small amount of marijuana has enabled me to function in the world again.
I am a resident of Santa Cruz diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. I also suffer from several other chronic medical conditions associated with the disease, including Kaposi's sarcoma, Hepatitis C, thrush, liver disease, a damaged spleen, gastrointestinal disorders, neuropathic illnesses, and degenerative disk disease. Recurrent pneumonia, chronic pain, and wasting syndrome are also aspects of my deteriorating health. . .
On January 20, 1984, I was diagnosed with Kaposi's sarcoma (KS). KS is an often fatal cancer that strikes individuals with compromised immune systems. . . At that time, most patients diagnosed with KS died soon thereafter. My doctor told me that I only had six months to live. . . From 1984-1990, dozens of KS lesions appeared all over my legs, arms, trunk, back, neck and face. . . My doctor in Seattle advised me that the only treatment for Kaposi's sarcoma was Interferon. I began taking AZT because the doctors insisted that the Interferon would not work against KS without AZT.
I did not question the wisdom of this treatment and I complied with the regime. However, the side effects were debilitating. For more than two years, I lived with constant nausea, frozen and painful joints, and intense body sweats that left me exhausted and dehydrated. . . The Interferon treatments severely damaged my liver and caused episodes of severe anemia, an enlarged spleen, and chronic thrombocytopenia . . .
In 1991, I received some sample pills of Marinol from my physician to address the pain and the nausea from the Interferon treatments. Since I am quite sensitive to medications and had experienced the side effects of other drugs, I only took one pill at first, as prescribed. The instructions allowed me to supplement the dosage as needed. After several hours, I felt no effects at all. Two days later after my next Interferon injection, I took two Marinol pills, and was literally unable to move for hours. This was obviously more than I needed. I tried on other occasions to find a dose that I could tolerate, but the medicine was unpredictable and prevented me from functioning normally.... As for nausea, swallowing a pill with water to stop vomiting will NOT work at least not in my experience. The pills I took for episodes of nausea didn't stay in my stomach for more than five minutes.
Medical marijuana was originally recommended to treat my nausea and chronic pain and has proven to be more effective than any of the numerous other treatments I have tried. Applied as a spray, it effectively relieves the pain caused by arthritis and the severe nerve damage in my hands and back. . . It is effective without the debilitating grogginess, nausea and lethargy I experienced with other prescribed pain medications (Vicodin, Percocet, Neurontin, Codiene, and of course aspirin), including those prescribed specifically for spastic pain and neuropathy (such as Bentyl, Klonopin, Prednisone, and NuLev). Marijuana also acts as an appetite stimulant, helping me eat enough to avoid "wasting" and the malnutrition that results.
Before using marijuana, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pains dominated my daily life. They were unpredictable and uncontrollable, often so severe that I was literally housebound for days at a time. The nausea came in waves, usually with headaches and dizziness. It prevented me from eating regular meals and frequently left me sleepless. There have been periods when nausea, vomiting, or both were so persistent that I was unable to keep down my HIV medications. If I vomited my medications, I would have to take a second dose immediately after vomiting to keep the drug levels in my blood consistent for the therapies to work effectively. Although I never smoked tobacco, smoking medical marijuana provides almost instant relief from the nausea without the incapacitating side effects that often occur with prescription drugs. At times, it causes throat problems, but considering the health benefits and the alternatives, I think this is a fair trade.
I have a chronic, potentially fatal, autoimmune disorder. Ongoing sleep disruptions, chronic pain, anxiety, as well as malnutrition, were destroying my health, leaving me extremely vulnerable to infections and respiratory diseases. Medical marijuana has controlled my gastrointestinal symptoms to the point where they no longer control my daily activities. This became more important when it was discovered that I was also infected with Hepatitis C (HCV). At one point, the gastritis from HIV medications left me so weak and dehydrated that I was unable to digest proteins or benefit from either food or medications. Medical marijuana has enabled me to adhere to the various HIV regimens. Unlike Marinol, medical marijuana is more easily controlled and I can avoid the mental confusion and lethargy from over-medication.
THE EXPERIENCE OF DOCTORS
Kate Scannell, M.D.
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.
Kate Scannell, M.D. is the author of Death of the Good Doctor: Lessons from the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic.
Marcus A. Conant, M.D.
Medical marijuana has been used extensively by physicians throughout the United States in the treatment of cancer and AIDS patients. It stimulates the appetite and promotes weight gain, in turn strengthening the body, combating chronic fatigue, and providing the stamina and physical well-being necessary to endure or withstand both adverse side effects of ongoing treatment and other opportunistic infections. It has been shown effective in reducing nausea, neurological pain and anxiety, and in stimulating appetite.
When these symptoms are associated with (or caused by) other therapies, marijuana has been useful in facilitating compliance with more traditional therapies. It may also allow individual patients to engage in normal social interactions and avoid the despair and isolation which frequently accompanies long-term discomfort and illness. . .
In my practice, marijuana has been of greatest benefit to patients with wasting syndrome. . . Likewise, for some of my patients undergoing chemotherapy, when conventional drugs fail to relieve the severe nausea and vomiting, I often find that marijuana provides the patient with the ability to eat and to tolerate aggressive cancer treatments. . .
I was one of the principal investigators of an FDA-supervised trial conducted by Unimed, Inc. on the safety and efficacy of Marinol as an appetite stimulant in HIV/AIDS patients suffering from wasting syndrome. Marinol is a form of THC, one of the key active components of marijuana; it is essentially a marijuana extract. It was approved by the FDA five years ago, and has been widely prescribed by physicians treating both AIDS and cancer patients. . .
I am aware, however, that Marinol (like any medication) is not effective in treating all patients. In some cases, the reason is simple: Marinol is taken orally, in pill form. Patients suffering from severe nausea and retching cannot tolerate the pills and thus do not benefit from the drug. There are likely other reasons why smoked marijuana is sometimes more effective than Marinol. The body's absorption of the chemical may be faster or more complete when inhaled. Means of ingestion is often critical in understanding treatment efficacy.
Dr. Marcus Conant is a physician who has practiced medicine for 33 years in San Francisco. Dr. Conant is Medical Director of the Conant Medical Group, one of the largest private AIDS practices in the United States. He is a professor at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco and is the author or co-author of over 70 publications on treatment of AIDS. He and his colleagues provide primary care for over 5,000 HIV patients, including 2,000 with AIDS.
Neil M. Flynn, M.D., MPH
I participate in the care of approximately 1,500 AIDS patients. I am the primary physician for 200 AIDS patients.
Intractable nausea and wasting syndrome are frequent symptoms associated with AIDS and the treatment of AIDS. The nausea, which can last for days, weeks or months, is one of the most severe forms of discomfort or pain that the human being can experience. It destroys the quality of life of the patient, whose sole objective is to make it through the next hour, the next day. Racked by intense vomiting and queasiness, time for the patient seems to stand still. Wasting can take a similar psychological and physical toll. . .
If I am unable to relieve the patient's nausea with [conventional] remedies, I next prescribe Marinol, a synthetic version of THC, one of the main active compounds found in marijuana. Marinol is also helpful in stimulating appetite in patients suffering from AIDS wasting, as are other drugs, Megace, anabolic steroids, and human growth hormone.
If Marinol does not provide adequate relief from nausea and/or wasting, I may suggest that the patient try a related remedy, marijuana. I firmly believe that medical marijuana is medically appropriate as a drug of last resort for a small number of seriously ill patients. Over 20 years of clinical experience persuade me of this fact. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Almost every patient I have known to have tried marijuana achieved relief from symptoms with it. That success rate far surpasses that for Compazine. Accordingly, as with any other medication that I consider potentially beneficial to my patients, I must discuss the option of medical marijuana in detail when appropriate. Anything less is malpractice. . .
In my nearly thirty years of clinical experience caring for the HIV/AIDS patients, many near to or at the end of life, I have found marijuana to be a valuable medication for the alleviation of intense suffering associated with nausea, wasting, and neuropathic pain. Marijuana has helped patients overcome these potentially life threatening symptoms, and has done so safely and without the debilitating side effects induced by many mainline therapies. I have seen marijuana restore patients' will to live by restoring their ability to eat, gain strength, and perform simple, daily activities free from crippling nausea or pain.
There is no doubt in my mind that for some seriously ill patients, marijuana can help make the difference between life and death; and that for other terminally ill patients, marijuana can make the difference between exercising control over their final months and days and passing in relative peace and comfort, or dying in constant and severe agony (or incapacitated in a prolonged sedated haze, unaware of their surroundings).
Marijuana, in short, can help sick and dying persons achieve autonomy over their lives by alleviating the intense suffering caused by their illnesses or the side effects of their medications.
For some patients (for example those suffering from operable cancer), medical marijuana may allow them to continue their treatments and thus serve as a bridge to eventual cure; for others marijuana may help promote relative well-being and prolong a life free from intolerable pain; and for still other patients, marijuana may help them control the manner and timing of their deaths consistent with their values, beliefs and dignity.
Dr. Neil M. Flynn is a Professor of Clinical Medicine at the University of California at Davis School of Medicine where he established the UCD AIDS and Related Disorders Clinic and is a member of the Chancellor's Committee on AIDS. He is attending physician in the University Medical Center's Infectious Diseases Clinic and at the Center for AIDS Research, Education and Services. He is the author of numerous articles and a member of many professional organizations.
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