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British Columbia UBC researcher gets $1-million grant to study link between pot, HIV/AIDS

Claudette Cardinal, seen in Vancouver on Saturday, is living with HIV/AIDS and says using marijuana helps her with her nausea and loss of appetite.

Jimmy Jeong/The Globe and Mail

A University of B.C. researcher who recently found that daily pot use might help fight HIV/AIDS is getting a $1-million grant from a commercial cannabis grower, which could lead to more clinical evidence for doctors skeptical of a drug still outlawed in Canada.

National Green BioMed, a Richmond-based company partly owned by former Liberal MP Herb Dhaliwal, has already provided $200,000. It has committed to paying the full million dollars over five years, even if it fails to secure a licence from Health Canada to grow marijuana at its Fraser Valley facility.

Mr. Dhaliwal said a team led by M. J. Milloy, an infectious-disease epidemiologist with the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, will have "all the freedom in the world" to conduct research that meets the "highest ethical standards" into the possible therapeutic benefits of cannabis.

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While doctors can prescribe pot, there is a dearth of clinical evidence on the efficacy of the plant's touted benefits and many simply don't know enough about the drug to recommend it to patients. This is complicated by Health Canada refusing to approve marijuana as a drug or medicine, but being compelled to regulate it by the courts, which have ruled that Canadians must have reasonable access to medical cannabis.

Globally, concerns have also been raised about controlled studies using placebos in humans, a standard test for pharmaceutical drugs, because marijuana's psychoactive properties make such clinical trials difficult to administer, said Dr. Milloy, who is also an assistant professor at UBC.

HIV/AIDS patients in B.C. have long been prescribed medical marijuana to help them deal with their pain and to stimulate an appetite lost because of effects of the disease. But Dr. Milloy's study, recently published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Review, was the first to draw a link to its potential ability to fight the virus itself. (That follows research by colleagues at Louisiana State University that showed similar effects when macaque monkeys infected with a related disease were administered the THC compound found in cannabis.)

Dr. Milloy's team compared data from two groups of injection drug users on Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. It found those with the virus who consumed cannabis at least once a day had less than half the level of HIV in their blood compared with those who rarely or never took the drug.

Dr. Milloy said the funding, to be announced Monday morning, could allow him and his team to test one hypothesis that pot's anti-inflammatory properties lead to its compounds "cooling off" the inflammation to help "bring down the replication of the virus" in the bloodstream.

When she was diagnosed HIV positive at an Edmonton clinic, Claudette Cardinal was told she had two years to live. She stopped taking the prescribed anti-retroviral drugs to combat the disease because they made her violently ill and her ears ring.

"The side effects I was getting from those meds at the time was like I was actively injecting [illegal drugs] again," Ms. Cardinal said.

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Several years later, after she had moved to Victoria, she began taking the anti-retrovirals again, but this time with a cannabis prescription to help her keep her appetite. The alcohol in the concentrated cannabis tinctures made her gag, but she found relief from the side effects of her HIV/AIDS drugs through smoking or eating strains of marijuana known for their physical rather than mental effects.

Twenty years after being diagnosed, the 47-year-old Ms. Cardinal says the marijuana has helped her to "maintain a healthy weight because I do not want to go back to that skeleton of bones … it's not a pretty sight."

"I do believe [marijuana] does help suppress the actual part of something in there, but I'm not quite sure what it is."

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