MIAMI -- Some people with AIDS have a motto: "Die high."
All over America, AIDS patients are smoking marijuana to suppress their nausea and regain weight.
"People are using marijuana to try to stay alive," said Bob Kunst, executive director of Cure Aids Now International of Miami. "But they figure if they are going to die of AIDS, why not die high?"
The illegal drug has an underground network of AIDS patients passing the word about the drug's medicinal benefits.
"Marijuana enhances my appetite," said a 41-year-old Miami man with AIDS, who asked not to be identified. "Without it, I'd wither away."
There is another reason for smoking pot, he said; the same reason he began smoking it in 1968. "Marijuana seems to yank me out of those dark places your mind tends to go. It shines a new light on you and you realize things aren't as bad as you think."
Last summer, in the first case of its kind, a young couple infected with the AIDS virus argued in court that they should be cleared of drug charges because of medical necessity.
"I've got to smoke marijuana. I've got to, or I'll die," Barbara Jenks, 24, testified during a trial in August in Panama City, Fla. She and her husband Kenny Jenks were charged with possessing and cultivating marijuana.
On August 10, a judge found them guilty, rejecting their defense of medical necessity. He sentenced the couple to a year's probation and 500 hours of community service: to be completed by caring for each other.
Jenks, 28, is a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through a tainted blood transfusion and unknowingly transmitted the disease to his wife.
The Jenkses have applied to take part in a federal program allowing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. They said neither they nor their doctor knew about the program before they were arrested March 29 on a charge of cultivating marijuana.
Proponents of allowing marijuana use for medical purposes say the Jenkses' case is important to AIDS patients nationwide.
"This has profound implications for AIDS patients," said Robert Randall, a glaucoma patient and the first of five Americans to gain legal, medically supervised access to marijuana. "What is happening here in Florida will not only affect the care of AIDS patients, but perhaps force the government to make marijuana more available."
For 20 years, doctors have studied the therapeutic effects of marijuana on cancer patients who often suffer from nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy. The drug is also recognized in the treatment of glaucoma, an eye disease, and multiple sclerosis, an incurable and debilitating neurological disorder.
In the last several years, people with AIDS say they have discovered the drug's medicinal benefits. In support groups, they often urge people who have tested positive for HIV to use the drug.
"Everybody is doing it, but nobody talks about it," said Kunst of Cure AIDS Now. "They aren't abusing the drug; they're using it."
"I don't do it to get high," said a 37-year-old Miami man with AIDS. "I never used marijuana before. I use it to get rid of my headaches."
There is one known case in the U.S. where an AIDS patient received permission from the federal government to use marijuana.
He has been identified only as "Steve," a Vietnam veteran from Texas who was arrested for marijuana possession. He fought the charge and received permission to use the drug legally -- 10 days before he died.
In April, two days after being released from jail, Kenny Jenks read Steve's story in High Times magazine.
"All of a sudden I turn the page and I saw in big letters, 'AIDS Patient Gets Legal Pot,' " said Jenks. "My wife was in the shower and I ran in and said, 'Barb, this is us.' "
The Jenkses had not sought permission from the Food and Drug Administration or Drug Enforcement Administration to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. They didn't know they could.
Elvy Mussika, a glaucoma sufferer, obtained permission after Broward County Circuit Judge Mark Polen acquitted her on a drug charge in 1988 and called her dilemma "an intolerable legal situation."
Irvin Rosenfeld, a Fort Lauderdale stockbroker, has permission to use the drug to offset pain from a bone tumor.
Randall's organization, Alliance for Cannibis Therapeutics, and the Washington, D.C.-based Drug Policy Foundation have appealed a DEA decision that marijuana does not have proven medical value and should remain largely inaccessible.
The agency says the proof of marijuana's medicinal value is anecdotal, but the pro-legalization organizations say there are more than a dozen studies showing that marijuana suppresses nausea when other drugs fail.
In one of those studies, conducted in New Mexico, 75 percent of 169 cancer patients who had rejected other forms of nausea suppressants were aided by marijuana, said Daniel Dansak, a psychiatrist who conducted the study and testified at the Jenkses' trial.
To ease nausea in AIDS patients, some doctors prescribe Marinol, a synthetic form of marijuana approved by the FDA in pill form. However, some patients vomit so often that Marinol is useless.
"Doctors around the country are prescribing a bunch of medications to stimulate appetite for AIDS patients, said Nancy Klimas of the Veterans Administration Hospital in Miami. "None has 100 percent consistency."
Some doctors have found that marijuana weakens the immune system while easing AIDS symptoms. A study of mice has shown that pure marijuana injections have strengthened the AIDS virus.
"I wouldn't want to play around with the immune system if I had AIDS," said Herman Friedman, professor and chairman of the Department of Medical Microbiology at the University of South Florida's College of Medicine in Tampa.
But Kenny and Barbara Jenks are convinced that marijuana is prolonging their lives. They have been struggling since 1985, when doctors told Kenny, that he had received a blood transfusion contaminated with the AIDS virus. Others who received blood from the same container had tested positive for the AIDS virus.
In December 1988, Barbara Jenks became seriously ill. Doctors told Kenny Jenks to call her relatives because she was not going to make it.
Somehow, she did. But she kept losing weight, dwindling to 115 pounds from 155. Even the thought of food made her sick. Kenny had no appetite, but occasionally forced down a sandwich.
The Jenkses enrolled in an AIDS group therapy class at the Bay County Health Department. It was there that they learned about marijuana's healing effects from another infected man. He gave them a joint to take home.
At first, Barbara refused to try it. She had been against illegal drug use all her life. Kenny, who had smoked pot a few times as a younger man, smoked it that night.
"Fifteen minutes after I smoked my first joint, I lost the nausea," Kenny Jenks recalled. "After an hour, I was eating everything in the house."
The Jenkses continued smoking marijuana, either bought from a friend or from the two small plants they grew at home.
On March 29, drug agents smashed down their front door and confronted the couple. They read them a search warrant and asked, "Where's your marijuana? Where's your marijuana?" Kenny Jenks said.
The agents found two plants and charged the couple with possession and cultivation of marijuana.
At their recent trial, assistant state attorney Quinton Broxton did not argue that the Jenkses were not benefiting from marijuana. He argued that they should have obtained a federal permit for its medical application. The couple has submitted an application.
Until it was disclosed in court last month, some of the Jenkses' closest friends were unaware they had AIDS. So far, their community has reacted with compassion.
Randall, of the Alliance for Cannibis Therapeutics, said the Jenkses won't be the last people with AIDS to face drug charges.
"Patients facing a terminal disease don't want to go through a lot of paperwork. They need treatment now," he said. "The streets are not the place to get medical care."