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Study: Marijuana Use Linked to Poor HIV Suppression in Adolescents

Achieving a viral load below 200 copies/mL, known as viral suppression, is a key benchmark in the successful treatment of HIV infection. Adolescents who regularly use marijuana are more than twice as likely to have poor viral suppression compared to non-users, according to a recent study.

The study, soon to be published in the journal AIDS and Behavior, surveyed 200 HIV-positive adolescents between 13 and 24 years of age about their drug use patterns. Approximately 46% of these adolescents reported using marijuana. The average viral load among those who had used marijuana over the past six months was 827 copies/mL, compared with an average viral load of 40 copies/mL for non-drug users. The significantly higher average viral load found in marijuana users is medically concerning since a high viral load can speed up disease progression and heighten transmission risk.

Amelia Thompson, the lead author of the study and assistant professor of pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine, explained that parents and healthcare providers should be aware of the potential negative impacts of marijuana as its recreational use becomes more acceptable in our society.

“Some persons may perceive marijuana to be harmless as it is a naturally existing plant with some beneficial properties such as pain relief and appetite stimulation,” said Thompson. “However, our study has demonstrated that, as with any other psychoactive drug, there is the potential for abuse and downstream negative effects that may not have been anticipated by the users.”

A similar study conducted last year by the Adolescent Trials Network (ATN) did not detect an association between HIV suppression and marijuana use. The population ATN surveyed consisted of significantly fewer African American and LGBTQ individuals, which may explain why their results differed from Thompson’s. Thompson cautioned that her study’s findings may not be applicable to adolescents who are demographically dissimilar to those in her survey, the vast majority of whom identify as African American and live in Atlanta, Georgia.

“The HIV+ adolescent and young adults in Atlanta demographically reflect the population that is currently driving the HIV epidemic in the United States,” added Thompson. “However, this population may not reflect adolescents and young adults in other parts of the country, particularly in rural areas where the types of drugs used may be different.”

The study also found that adolescents with lower educational attainment were also more than twice as likely to have poor viral suppression. Yet there was no link between alcohol consumption and viral suppression and retention in care, which suggests that marijuana use may have a much greater negative impact on viral load than alcohol use.