HIV & THC: A Love Story

“Every single day used to be such a struggle,” Eddie Ryan* says with an eyeroll. His large, expressive hands pretend to shake imaginary medicine bottles. “This pill for high blood pressure, that pill for nausea, this pill for anxiety, this pill for enzymes, three other pills for reasons I forget — it was endless and a constant reminder that my life had become a nightmare virtually overnight.”

Make no mistake, though: Eddie still takes daily medication. The biggest difference is: “I can ditch the ones that alleviate nausea and anxiety.” There’s that eyeroll again. “I’ll be honest with you: They weren’t even working that well.” He leans forward and opens a small, wooden box resting on his kitchen table.

“I’ll tell you what does, though,” he says with a smile.

The 53-year-old realtor and reluctant silver fox — “That makes me feel old, people calling me that!” — produces a baggie of something called Jeff Sesh-ons. I can’t help but laugh. “You like that?” he grins.

Purchased legally in his new hometown of Denver, the small zip-top bag is labeled with a Colorado-approved/mandated sticker. The verbiage indicates this particular strain of cannabis is a sativa, meaning the high produced is a more upbeat, energetic sort, as opposed to strains associated with relaxation and downtime, called indicas.

As it’s morning and Eddie has errands — “not work!” he’s sure to add — he packs a glass bowl full of the pungent herb and gingerly lights it, taking in a small puff and inhaling deeply. He closes his eyes in exhale, goofy and exaggerated. “Mmmm. Delicious. Legal.”

When the Alpharetta-born jokester received his HIV diagnosed in 2009, he went into an inescapable panic mode. “There was a dark cloud hanging over everything I did, especially if it was something fun.” He takes another puff after I ask for an example. “If I was out on the lake with friends, I’d have a laugh at something and immediately stop myself. I’d think, ‘You have HIV and you’re going to die soon, you dumb son of a bitch — what’s there to laugh at?’” He fidgets with his lighter while shaking his head. “‘But it wasn’t true, the whole ‘dying soon’ part. [My diagnosis] made it impossible to enjoy my life, even if was psychological.”

He admits to never suffering from anxiety before his diagnosis, that it “really put things into a whole new perspective.”

“I’ve always been the type of guy who studied hard, trained hard, thought positively,” he says. “The panic and depression got the better of me; I became someone else entirely — someone none of my friends or family recognized. I literally couldn’t have a good laugh or be happy about anything, and that’s so unlike me.”

That is, until a friend suggested he try pot. It was within the first few hits that he discovered the positive effects that cannabis had on his psyche and, later, physical symptoms of his condition. So far, similar reports from HIV-positive partakers are anecdotal, but in 2017, researchers at the University of Florida received a $3.2 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to explore the health effects of HIV-positive cannabis users. The study aims to find conclusive evidence on marijuana’s influence on pain, the body, chronic inflammation, viral suppression, stress, and sleep. The study will take place over the next five years, following 400 HIV-positive volunteers living in Florida.

As for Eddie, he swears he’s living proof that the physical effects are real. He pats his belly, but I don’t
understand his point. (Munchies?)

I ask him if he’d come home, should Georgia legalize marijuana for — at the very least — medicinal use.

His eyelids are puffy and he smiles slowly, infectiously. “Everybody would laugh at how fat I’ve gotten!” he says. “What wasting? I’ve been able to eat like a pig and keep it all down!” (Ahh. Wasting syndrome. Cannabis, of course, causes hunger and is known to alleviate nausea, hence the belly pats.) He admits that he’s only kidding about not coming home. He puts his pipe and baggie back in the box, then stands to stretch. “This stuff has worked wonders for muscle cramping, too.”

But back to Georgia.

“We’ll see,” he shrugs. Then he shakes his head after a moment, as though what I’ve just asked is ridiculous. He doesn’t see Georgia legalizing cannabis anytime soon. He says he knows what could change that.

“Politicians should come out here and see with their own eyes how extraordinary the industry is. Shove the article you’re writing into the hands of every politician you see and tell them to get their asses out here!”

He’s animated now.

“The revenue generated is something conservatives could get into! The money could go toward infrastructure and education and ease up the taxpayer burden!” He points out his window at what I assume is his way of showing me a newly paved highway. He’s now gesturing at his kitchen table, his living room, his ceiling, his existence. “The boost in life-quality for people like me is something that  would make lots of liberals happy, too. It’s a no-brainer! So many people could benefit from this and I just don’t get why everyone who could literally use this stuff to save their lives doesn’t have universal access to it!”

I understand his passion completely.

Marijuana policy in America is (if you’ll pardon my
interjection) rather embarrassing. We bond over this until he’s quietened down. It’s not that he was fighting mad or anything — just venting. At any rate, he pulls his shirt up a bit, and pats what he feels is a gut.

“I’m fat and happy here. That’s more than a lot of people who walk my path can say.” The shirt goes back down. “I just really wish more people could be able to say that, you know?”

I know.

*name changed for reasons of privacy