How cannabis is helping people living with HIV

March 6, 2019

Cannabis leavesBy Raven Feagins

UPDATE: On June 26, 2019, Governor Pritzker signed a bill into law that will legalize recreational cannabis for adults in Illinois by the start of 2020. Once this new law is in place, all Illinoisans 21 years and older will be legally allowed to possess up to 30 grams of cannabis, as well as varied amounts of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis)-infused products. With this, Illinoisans living with HIV and other chronic conditions who benefit from consuming cannabis and cannabis-derived products will no longer need to jump through hoops to access the products they need to stay healthy and have a better quality of life.

Cannabis has had a long, demonizing and even racist history in the United States. However, throughout the country, laws are changing to legalize the sale and use of cannabis (also known as marijuana, pot and other casual names) for both recreational and medical use. Even Illinois, which currently has legalized medical cannabis and decriminalized possession of small amounts of the substance, seems to be headed toward legalizing cannabis for recreational use. However, legalizing cannabis for medicinal purposes in particular has become more popular over the years because of its known anti-inflammatory and appetite-inducing properties, on top of a number of the other positive benefits for lots of people living with various health conditions. Although there is research that warns about the effects of smoking cannabis (and there is still more research to be done) for people living with HIV, it is well known in the HIV community that cannabis consumption can help offset the effects of muscle soreness, nausea, loss of appetite and other symptoms that often come with HIV and the medications used to treat it. Despite these benefits, however, there are still providers who are skeptical.

“A lot of physicians who sign for patients with HIV to get their [medical cannabis] card don’t always want their patients on medical cannabis,” said Richard Park who has been in the cannabis industry since 1998 and currently works as a retail consultant for Dispensary 33, a medical cannabis provider in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. “People try to provide cannabis as the last resort, but that’s the absolute wrong way to go about it. It’s not compassionate.” 

Park went on to explain that many of the modern medications that would be used to treat symptoms, such as nausea, can be a lot more aggressive on the body than cannabis and would also just add another pill on top of someone’s already intensive regimen. This is one reason why Park and many others advocate for cannabis as a less harmful alternative for people living with chronic conditions. 

“When I started on HIV treatment meds in ’97 or so, I was on a protease inhibitor. The pills were huge, and I took eight at a time. I was nauseous every day for 2 years — it was really hard,” said Jim Pickett, senior director of prevention advocacy and gay men’s health at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. “It got to a point just looking at the pills would make me incredibly queasy.”  

Pickett has been living with HIV since 1995 and recalls all that his body endured within those first few years of being on his original HIV treatment. Because of the constant nausea, Pickett was unable to enjoy even the smell of food.  The constant stigma and not knowing how much longer he had to live developed into anxiety and depression - things he still struggles with, actually. At the time, there were not as many options available for HIV treatment as there are now, so Pickett had to stick with what was keeping him alive. He had to find ways to find ways to help keep him on his HIV treatment but counteract the downsides. 

“I always enjoyed pot recreationally, and one day I realized that just taking a hit before taking my medication made me feel so much better,” said Pickett. “The nausea disappeared almost instantly. I could take my pills, I had an appetite, and I wasn’t walking around all day feeling like I was going to puke at any moment. I had never honestly seen pot as a medical thing, but it made me feel more like a human. Looking back, I think it also helped with anxiety … when I had the opportunity to switch my meds, I did, but I wouldn’t have been able to stay on those earlier meds without pot. I think it was a really important bridge for me.” 

Pickett was not the only person living with HIV to realize the benefits of consuming cannabis as part of their treatment. In fact, AIDS activists in the early years of the epidemic were also huge advocates for the legalization of medical cannabis and helped propel the movement toward recognizing the medical benefits of cannabis and the movement towards legalization happening today.  

While there is a lot of research that still needs to be done on the benefits (and the long-term effects) for people living with HIV who consume cannabis, it is important to recognize the reasoning behind the desires of the people seeking access to cannabis.  

“All patients living with chronic conditions … you have to take into account that their conditions are never going away,” said Park. 

Cannabis may never be the cure for chronic medical conditions, but many people with chronic conditions have better-quality lives because of it. Who knew a plant could be so powerful? 

Categorized under Illinois, Inside Story and National.

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