For decades, it’s been clear to AIDS patients, their doctors and their families that cannabis is a valuable tool in the medical arsenal used to fight the disease. Not only can cannabis stimulate appetite and help prevent the devastating malnutrition that often overtakes patients, it can also improve the overall quality of life of sufferers. But as has already been mentioned, this is old news. The cutting edge in medical cannabis research suggests that cannabis may actually hold the key to stopping AIDS in its tracks.
Working with infected chimpanzees, LSU researchers in February 2014 found that a daily dose of THC over a 17 month period was actually able to decrease damage to immune system tissue in the stomach, one of the most commonly and severely affected parts of the body among patients. Since HIV spreads by affecting healthy immune cells, THC’s ability to protect those cells in HIV-positive test subjects could mean a drastic change in the way one of the world’s most devastating diseases is treated. It also has the potential to upend decades of prejudice against cannabis in the medical community with regards to HIV/AIDS—until recently, it was common to hear that THC actively deteriorated immune function, a theory which we are now learning might be the opposite of the truth.
Adding to a 2007 Columbia University study linking a four-times-daily marijuana regimen with increased appetite and robustness of movement and appearance, and a 2011 study by Dr. Patricia Molina of LSU that paved the way for 2014’s chimpanzee trials, these recent developments show that the breadth of scope for medical marijuana has bounds that we have not yet begun to fully comprehend. The problem is that despite the importance of Dr. Molina’s work at LSU, it is still impossible for her to test these remarkable findings on humans after having such positive results with our close primate cousins.
This is particularly frustrating since her work with chimpanzees suggest that what THC does to a stomach whose immune cells have been wrecked by HIV is actually repair those cells by activating receptors in the patient’s intestines known as CB2 Receptors, which are able to create new, healthy cells that can successfully block the virus.
As Molina’s research sits in a sort of Limbo, other physicians are coming out strongly against the idea of cannabis as medicine. One such skeptic, Dr. Kevin Sabet, had blunt words for The Daily Beast on the subject. “This study looked at THC—not marijuana—and they should not confuse the two issues,” he said. “This is not about marijuana—and any characterization as such is flawed…It would be like saying people should smoke opium because Morphine might help with X condition.” What’s more, whether or not anyone agrees with Sabet, even in states where cannabis is legal federal regulations would make the kind of testing necessary to figure out just how much of an effect toking up might have on HIV/AIDS nearly impossible.
Regardless of how much THC might be able to help AIDS patients once larger-scale research into the subject is possible, what is certain now is that cannabis is one of the few medical options to increase appetite and avoid malnutrition for those affected by the debilitating condition. Patients in states across the union where medical cannabis is legal are able to take advantage of increased quality of life where mere decades ago AIDS offered only the prospects of misery and ridicule. On the long road to unlocking the mystery of AIDS, cannabis may seem like a strange bedfellow for medical science, but together the two could hold the key.