The effects of dronabinol on appetite and weight were evaluated in 139 patients with AIDS-related anorexia and > or = 2.3 kg weight loss in a multi-institutional study. Patients were randomized to receive 2.5 mg dronabinol twice daily or placebo. Patients rated appetite, mood, and nausea by using a 100-mm visual analogue scale 3 days weekly. Efficacy was evaluable in 88 patients. Dronabinol was associated with increased appetite above baseline (38% vs 8% for placebo, P = 0.015), improvement in mood (10% vs -2%, P = 0.06), and decreased nausea (20% vs 7%; P = 0.05). Weight was stable in dronabinol patients, while placebo recipients had a mean loss of 0.4 kg (P = 0.14). Of the dronabinol patients, 22% gained > or = 2 kg, compared with 10.5% of placebo recipients (P = 0.11). Side effects were mostly mild to moderate in severity (euphoria, dizziness, thinking abnormalities); there was no difference in discontinued therapy between dronabinol (8.3%) and placebo (4.5%) recipients. Dronabinol was found to be safe and effective for anorexia associated with weight loss in patients with AIDS.