For Justin Brash, smoking marijuana is not a recreational activity -“ access to his daily smoke can make the difference between being able to eat a solid meal and hours spent vomiting.

Brash has been living with HIV since 1988, and is one of the many HIV-positive people already self-medicating with cannabis to overcome the side effects of drug treatments. Without it, he finds it difficult to maintain a healthy weight, feels nauseous and worries about whether his medication will stay in his system long enough to work.

I don’t particularly want to engage in an illegal activity, to be exposed to people whose profession is undesirable. But as it’s a health necessity to me I have no choice, he says.

The state government’s announcement of a four-year trial of legal cannabis use for selected people with chronic illnesses (including cancer and HIV/AIDS) is so exciting it’s not funny, Brash says. He hopes it will include government controls on strength and quality, and possibly a less damaging way to take the drug than smoking.

ACON president Adrian Lovney backed the decision to start the trial, saying the benefits of cannabis for dealing with pain, nausea and appetite loss which accompanied some HIV treatments were well established from international research.

There was also significant anecdotal evidence about the benefits of cannabis use from Australian doctors, he said. A Darlinghurst doctor included in a 2001 study of medicinal cannabis use estimated about 50 percent of his HIV/AIDS patients were already using the drug.

Anti-retroviral treatments have given many HIV-positive people a new lease on life, but this often comes with debilitating side effects that have a major impact on their quality of life.

Lovney said the drug could benefit many people who have not tried it because of its illegal status.

Some people living with HIV/AIDS currently risk criminal prosecution to use cannabis because this is the only way they can alleviate these side effects.

Outgoing Australian Medical Association president Kerryn Phelps joined the debate this week, telling the ABC’s PM program the trial was a chance to develop controlled supplies and alternative ingestion methods of cannabis for seriously ill people.

The four-year trial received bipartisan support in the NSW Lower House, despite some politicians expressing concerns about how the cannabis will be produced.

Some community organisations have called the trial irresponsible, including Jill Pear-man, from the Quit Marijuana Program at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital. Pearman told the ABC cannabis had the capacity to destroy lives.

I run a program whereby we see people who are psychotic, because of cannabis use. This drug is a very serious drug, it has very serious effects on the brain, Pearman said.

The trial, due to start later this year, will make NSW the first Australian state to legalise cannabis use for medicinal purposes. Only people with a reference from their doctor and without previous drug convictions will be eligible.

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