Although Congress has all but refused to downgrade the Schedule I classification of the cannabis plant, a process that would allow the herb to be studied feely for a multitude of therapeutic purposes, the federal government has thrown caution to the wind by allocating funds for researchers to explore the healing effects of marijuana on HIV patients.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently awarded a team of scientists at the University of Florida a $3.2 million grant for the sole purpose of determining whether the cannabis plant has the power to alleviate the symptoms brought on by the human immunodeficiency virus.
It is the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind, according to a press release from UF Health.
The study, which is being overseen by Dr. Robert Cook, director of UF’s Southern HIV and Alcohol Research Consortium, is intended to uncover definitive evidence to support the idea of cannabis being used as an alternative or supplemental treatment for HIV patients.
“Marijuana use is increasingly common in persons living with HIV infection,” Cook said in a statement. “Yet, past findings regarding the health impact of marijuana use on HIV have been limited and inconclusive.”
Unlike other government-funded studies, most of which are designed to show the negative effects of the cannabis plant, this five-year exploration will serve to “guide clinical and safety recommendations for marijuana use.”
Cook’s team has already published more than a dozen research papers over the past year related to the use of cannabis and HIV-related symptoms.
The goal with their latest endeavor is to determine how marijuana affects patient behavior and its “effects on the body, including chronic inflammation and viral suppression.”
Researchers plan to follow 400 marijuana users (it doesn’t matter if their consumption is for medicinal or recreational purposes) in an effort to “identify patterns of use most strongly associated with control of patient symptoms, such as pain, stress and sleep problems,” according to UF Health.
“Many persons using marijuana for specific health indications may have identified specific strategies to use marijuana that they find to be most effective, and we can learn from their experience,” Cook said. “This information can help to inform clinical care and identify specific types and patterns of marijuana use to be studied in future randomized clinical trials.”
According to HIV.gov, there are more than 1.1 million people in the United States living with HIV—around one in seven have not yet been diagnosed.
Although the rate of new HIV cases has experienced a significant decline over the past two decades, the disease is still a major threat. HIV directly kills more than 6,000 people every year.
A recent study published in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (JAIDS) suggests that HIV patients who use cannabis have a better chance of stopping the progression of AIDS.
Other research has found that while alcohol and stimulants are attributed to increased mortality risk in HIV patients, cannabis use does not come with the same hazards.
“Our findings show no evidence of a negative effect of cannabis use on mortality risk,” said the research team from Yale, Brown, University of Pittsburgh, the Veterans Administration and the National Institutes of Health.
Interestingly, in 2016, the FDA approved a synthetic version of THC, the psychoactive compound of the cannabis plant, to be marketed to people suffering from AIDS and cancer. Although the drug had been available for years in pill form, the latest version comes in an “easy-to-swallow” liquid.
Still, the federal government maintains that marijuana has no known medicinal value.
“We have a shared vision of a day when people affected by alcohol, substance abuse, mental health and HIV can have the same quality of life and health outcomes as everyone else,” Cook said.