Study: HIV-positive people use marijuana for mental health symptoms

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com June 17 2003 11:00 PM ET

Preliminary data from a medical marijuana research study in San Mateo, Calif., have illustrated a surprising finding--many HIV-positive people more commonly use the drug to treat mental rather than physical symptoms, the San Francisco Examiner reports. "We expected to see people smoking marijuana to alleviate nausea and pain and to increase their appetite--all the reasons that are commonly cited," Diane Prentiss, a research epidemiologist at the San Mateo Medical Center, told the Examiner. "In this case, we were surprised that 57% say they smoked to relieve anxiety or depression." Researchers had surveyed 252 HIV-positive patients, 23% of whom used marijuana. When asked why they used the drug, mental health issues emerged as the top reason. Other common reasons for smoking medical marijuana were to curb nausea and to increase appetite. Nearly one third of the marijuana users also said they smoked the drug for recreational reasons, and just 28% said they smoked marijuana to relieve pain.

The preliminary results of the survey have led some of the researchers to worry that the justification for medical marijuana laws--that the drug is used to relieve physical symptoms of debilitating diseases--may not be valid because the drug seems to be more commonly used for mental health purposes. "It does speak to whether it's appropriate medication," said chief research officer Dennis Israelski. "Are physicians doing a good enough job when patients are using outside medication? Do we have better treatments for anxiety and depression? These are very important issues related to quality of life."

The clinical trial, the first in the country to be paid for with public funds, wrapped up in February. More detailed study data are expected later this year. Israelski said the center also is currently seeking federal approval for two additional studies to examine the effects of marijuana use on nausea, gastrointestinal disorders, and wasting syndrome in HIV-positive and cancer patients.