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Fact Sheet


January 7, 2014

What Is Marijuana?

Marijuana or Cannabis sativa is an herb. It grows in many places around the world. It is also called hemp, reefer, or cannabis. It has had many uses in different cultures. These include reducing pain and increasing appetite. Marijuana contains chemicals called cannabinoids. The best known is tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. The marijuana "high" is mainly due to THC.

Marijuana was used medically in the U.S. until the late 1930s. Then there were claims of "reefer madness." Supposedly, marijuana caused crime, violence, insanity, and death. In 1970, U.S. drug law classified marijuana as having a high potential for abuse and no medical use.

Marijuana was later found to have other health benefits. It can lower pressure within the eye. This helps treat glaucoma, an eye disease which can cause blindness. Marijuana also reduces nausea and vomiting in patients taking chemotherapy treatment for cancer. It reduces muscle spasms in people with nerve problems like multiple sclerosis and can help treat some types of pain. These uses led to the development of the drug dronabinol (Marinol), a synthetic version of THC.

NOTE: Federal and state laws generally forbid the sale or possession of marijuana. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have passed "medical marijuana" laws that permit limited use for health reasons. In 2009, the US government announced that federal agents will not arrest medical marijuana patients or providers who comply with state law. More information on state medical marijuana laws is available at

Why Do People With HIV Use Marijuana?

People with HIV use marijuana to stimulate appetite and to reduce nausea. Many people with HIV have low appetite. This can be due to fatigue or drug side effects. Low appetite can lead to AIDS wasting (see Fact Sheet 519). Marijuana stimulates the appetite, preventing these problems.

Some people with HIV get nauseated when they take antiretroviral medications (ARVs). This can make it difficult to take all scheduled doses. Marijuana can help control the nausea.

It may also relieve the pain of peripheral neuropathy (see Fact Sheet 555). A recent study confirmed it is useful for that purpose.

How Is Marijuana Used?

Normally, dried marijuana leaves and flowers are smoked or baked into food. Health care providers can legally prescribe Marinol. Some people get the same effects from Marinol as from smoked marijuana. Others prefer to smoke marijuana. They can use just the amount they need without bad effects from higher doses.

What Are the Side Effects?

Smoking marijuana can cause some of the same health problems as smoking tobacco, including bronchitis. However, it has not been clearly linked to lung cancer.

Smoked or eaten marijuana can disrupt balance, physical coordination and visual perception. This can make it dangerous to drive a car or operate machinery. Some people feel stoned (very disoriented or dizzy) when using marijuana. This effect can be stronger when marijuana is eaten than when it is smoked.

Some users develop a tolerance to marijuana. This means they need higher and higher doses to get the same effect. Users can also become dependent on marijuana. They may have mild withdrawal symptoms when they stop using it.

How Does It Interact With Other Therapies?

There are no known interactions between marijuana and medications or other herbs. However, very few interactions between herbs and medications have been studied. Tell your health care provider if you are using any herbs or supplements.

A research study found that smoking marijuana does not increase HIV viral load or reduce CD4 cell counts.

How Do We Know It Works?

Many scientific studies document marijuana's ability to reduce nausea, increase appetite, and decrease pressure in the eye.

The Bottom Line

Marijuana is an herb that is smoked or baked into food. It has been used for health purposes for thousands of years. It was legal in the United States until the 1930s. It stimulates the appetite, reduces nausea and some types of pain, and reduces pressure inside the eye.

U.S. drug policy made marijuana illegal in 1970. However, health care providers can prescribe Marinol. It is a synthetic version of THC, an active substance in marijuana. Not everyone gets the same results from Marinol as from marijuana.

Some people with AIDS use marijuana to stimulate their appetites or to avoid nausea when taking their ARVs. A few states have passed medical marijuana laws that permit limited use for health purposes.

For more information:

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This article was provided by AIDS InfoNet. Visit AIDS InfoNet's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
See Also
Medical Marijuana
More on Medical Marijuana

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Vincent Onen (Calabar, Nigria) Mon., Jul. 28, 2014 at 6:44 pm UTC
Marijuana should be Legalised 4 medical purposes.4 me I cani can't stop smoking weed.
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Comment by: stella (northamption) Tue., Jan. 15, 2013 at 9:45 am UTC
I am HIV positive' and I have lost of appetite and find it hard to sleep, can I use marijuana.
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Comment by: Tom O (L.A. Ca) Tue., Aug. 16, 2011 at 10:19 am UTC
I haven't smoked it for years, but I remember it would give me surges of energy while others would grow fatigued, I have since wondered, what is different about me, as this information might be useful in monitoring my overall health. Does anyone know about this?
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Comment by: chris (austin,tx) Sat., Mar. 26, 2011 at 4:23 pm UTC
thanks alot for the info
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Comment by: bart (new zealand) Mon., Feb. 21, 2011 at 5:29 am UTC
dont smoke weed you will destroy ur life
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Comment by: Helene (Roanoke, Virginia) Fri., Dec. 10, 2010 at 12:56 pm UTC
I have found marijuana to be an outstanding relief and addition to my life after a very stressful job brought out a chronic health condition called congenital pancreatic duct-divism/chronic pancrealtis. The relief has been almost instantaneous after only 2-3 puffs and relieves many symptoms such as stress, nausea,increased appetite, reduced pain in abdomen and has allowed me to reduce many of the hard narcotics and other medications I have to take for this illness. I believe it has allowed me to stay hospital free for the past 4out of 10 years since i decided to try it and i have reduced my long term pain meds from 80mg/day of methadone down to 20/mg of methadone. Since its use i have also been able to cut back on my short term pain med.which reduces my constipation issue.I have also aquired increased anxiety since this illness took place and with the help of marijuana my stress and anxiety has also lessoned where i no longer have a need for my anxiety medicine (adivan),which also reduces the need for my anti-reflux medicine. I would rather take a take two or three puffs than all those other medications!!!!My husband of 14yrs and best friend collectively of 20 yrs.,prior law enforcement and airfore veteran see's an astounding difference in less than minutes in my ability from being in a debilitated state to becoming awake and lucid and motivated.The use of marijuana has prevented many mini acute attacks which are caused by nausea,stress and diet.I have the diet part figured out which include no oil,butter,fried food,red meat,peanut butter,lactose or fatty or sauteed food. With its help i have also been able to stay hospital free for four years since its use in 2006.
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Comment by: kyrstin (cambrigde Md) Mon., Nov. 22, 2010 at 4:13 pm UTC
people that weed are so stuipd they dont no what they are getting there self into weed is a hard drug to stop smokeing you can get lung cancer you can have strokes it is not good for your health and heart I WILL NEVER USED MARIJUANA
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Comment by: NaN3Rz! (Houston, TX) Wed., Sep. 29, 2010 at 10:26 am UTC
Marijuana is not as bad as people think or say it shouldnt be illegal because many people are still using it i dont know why people are trippin about the use of marijuana..
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Comment by: crystal (bowling green, ky) Mon., Aug. 2, 2010 at 3:50 pm UTC
i believe that medical marijuana should be legalized in every state in america. there are so many cases of cancer, aids,ms and other diseases that it helps. i know for a fact that marijuana would be a better alternative than pain pills or any type of addicting narcotics.
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Comment by: Hans (Iowa) Sat., Jun. 19, 2010 at 4:19 pm UTC
Why is cannabis still illegal??? I don't understand. How can a PLANT that has medicinal value be such a hot topic. Is it not unconstitutional to deny something that could help alleviate pain and stimulate appetites for HIV and cancer patients. Pursuit of happiness ... it's such B.S. i am moving to Cali.
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Comment by: fege (new york) Mon., Apr. 26, 2010 at 2:48 pm UTC
how could marijuana make people crazed and out of control when it makes you feel lazy? marijuana is not a drug it is a plant. it's right for people to make a substitute for THC but it's wrong to use the actuall thing?
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Comment by: meline (new york, new york) Fri., Mar. 26, 2010 at 4:25 pm UTC
holy jeez! marijuana is really really bad for you!!!!! so do not!!!! i repeat!!!!! do not!!! use this HORRIBLE drug!!!! thank you!
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Comment by: Bob Marly (Los Angelis) Fri., Feb. 19, 2010 at 3:44 pm UTC
i think we should have marijuana legalized!!!
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Comment by: merlene shimasaki (seattle washington) Fri., Feb. 19, 2010 at 1:48 pm UTC
marijuana is really a helpful medicine. i know that marijuana works from experience because i have been around cancer patients and when they take it. it really helps with the fact of nausea,vomiting,tolerating therapy,pain,migraines,appetite....i believe in marijuana and i think that it should be offense!!!
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Comment by: TJR (Virginia) Mon., Jan. 11, 2010 at 3:34 pm UTC
Ummm, St. James - I hate to point out the obvious here, but we don't need to "give obese people scripts for tobacco" because tobacco is legal. The prohibition against marijuana in this country is not only ridiculous, it's hypocritical. Governments tax both alcohol and tobacco (which is, in all reality, just a nicotine delivery device - who would smoke cigarettes without nicotine in them??), and some states, like mine, sell alcohol in state-owned stores! Both alcohol and tobacco have been proven in studies to be more harmful to the body than marijuana (check with the World Health Organization for more information on this), so I'd love for someone to provide a coherent rationale for why they are legal and taxable and marijuana is not. The big argument generally used by the anti-legalization crowd is that marijuana is a gateway drug - this is yet another myth. The truth is that TOBACCO is the gateway - the vast majority of people who abuse drugs started out smoking cigarettes, which are, again, legal and taxable and can be purchased at your local 7/11 store. Jim A is right - prohibition strengthened organized crime in this country and that's one reason it was repealed back in the day. As a nation, we need to get with the program and do the same thing with the marijuana laws. Legalize it, tax it, and spend those tax dollars to fight truly dangerous drugs like cocaine and heroin!!
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Comment by: Jim A (Massillon, OH) Sat., Jan. 2, 2010 at 12:58 am UTC
angelray: While I myself could NEVER even attempt to drive a car when under this drug's influence (it is WAY too strong for me) and I also believe that it IS every bit as dangerous as driving drunk, I do not believe that it causes any more "damage" than most other drugs, including legal, OTC drugs like Tylenol and Advil. People who think like you are the main problem; you'd also ban narcotics even for the terminally ill if you had your way. Prohibition was not only a failure, but it gave us organized crime and violence in much the same way that Cocaine and cannabis gave way to gang-related drive-by shootings and turf wars. And by the way, Alcohol, in moderation, is good for you, period; I drink red wine every day and my doctor tells me to. What we need to do is legalize and then regulate all drugs; you'd end gang violence, and the government could tax it and get this nation out of serious debt. You (and like-minded others) have NO RIGHT to try to dictate to anyone else what they can and cannot do when it comes to something as deeply private and personal as pain management, using drugs to treat a disease, or even recreational drug use, for that matter. As long as you're in your own home and not driving or operating dangerous machinery or working at your job, it should be no one else's business, PERIOD. For example, I'm a Catholic, I hate abortion, but I would never dream of telling someone else what to regarding their personal life and/or family planning decisions, although I'd much rather see the use of birth control than a slaughtered child being vacuumed out of it's mother and flushed down a commercial garbage disposal. Stay out of other people's lives! God gave us all something called free will, period; to criminalize others simply because you don't like something they do or say is just WRONG.
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Comment by: rippit100 (New Zealand) Fri., Jan. 1, 2010 at 12:04 pm UTC
If someone has a problem with someone who is in pain smoking marijuana they are not a nice person. My Mum had cancer and was in pain and unbearable to live with because of her emotional state. One day I got stoned with her for the first time in my life. Our relationship grew alot from that moment. She became interested in life again. She developed an easygoing approach to life.
I have just become infected with HIV. I will be using marijuana until the day I die. Emotionally I can't take my mind off my new situation. I enjoy marijuana and I can manage it. To stereotype people that use marijuana as bad people is ignorant. Currently I am designing a not for profit youth rehabilitation centre on our family farm. Does this idea sound like something a bad person would persue?
Its the a new decade, a new time in history. Bring on freedom, and the green revolution.
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Comment by: St James (Montana) Thu., Dec. 31, 2009 at 7:17 pm UTC
Do we give obese people scripts for tobacco because it suppresses your appetite? What about the damage marijuana does to your respiratory tract?
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Comment by: angelray (NYC) Wed., Dec. 30, 2009 at 11:44 pm UTC
I have been around marijuana for a long time and I am a witness to the damage it causes. The damage it does outweighs any benifts that some claim. Why do we need another drug that when abused causes so much damage? Witness alcohol.
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Comment by: Tim (San Diego) Wed., Dec. 30, 2009 at 6:58 pm UTC
I use Medical Marijuana daily to help reduce pain, pn, increases my food intake and helps me sleep at night. daily all day and it's the only drug that helps with so many symptoms.
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Comment by: FlatironMike (NYC) Wed., Dec. 30, 2009 at 6:29 pm UTC
I belong to an underground buyer's club in NYC. We are ready to go legit the minute Medical Marijuana is approved by the Senate here. But as disfunctional as it is hell may freeze over first. Medical marijuana has been proven many times to be a much better option than compounds such as marinol which is refined, not natural.
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