WASHINGTON — Last year, armed Florida drug agents broke down Kenneth Jenks' front door with a battering ram and arrested him and his wife, Barbra, for having two marijuana plants in their home.
These days, the Jenkses get their pot free from their local pharmacist, courtesy of the federal government.
The Jenkses are not ordinary drug users. Kenneth Jenks, 29, is a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS from a contaminated blood transfusion. He unwittingly transmitted the disease to his wife.
They began smoking marijuana two years ago with the full consent of their doctor. It helps them counter the nausea and severe weight loss caused by their affliction.
The couple's rare "medical-necessity" defense didn't keep them from being convicted of violating state drug law last fall. Since then, in a development that some AIDS activists say may have long-range repercussions, the Food and Drug Administration is permitting the couple to receive marijuana under a little-known policy that allows some seriously ill people to use unapproved drugs.
In February, the first shipment arrived--a can containing 300 meticulously rolled joints, filled with marijuana grown under contract at a highly secure U.S. government marijuana farm in Oxford, Miss.
"I feel kind of vindicated," Jenks said shortly after the package came.
"I've smoked better," his 24-year-old wife said of the marijuana. "But it works."
The Jenkses are the latest symbols of one of the long-term and contentious debates about federal drug policy: Does marijuana, still the most widely used illegal drug, have medicinal value?
The Drug Enforcement Administration has long denied there is any legitimate use for marijuana. The agency classifies pot as a Schedule I "controlled substance," the same as heroin and LSD. This means it has no recognized medical purpose and may not be prescribed by physicians.
Cocaine, on the other hand, is classified as Schedule II. Doctors can use it legally as a local anesthetic in some cases.
For years, dissenting physicians and anti-prohibition activists have sought to reverse the DEA classification. They point out that the illicit weed already is used by tens of thousands of patients to ease suffering from muscle diseases, glaucoma and side effects from chemotherapy for cancer.
Now, the AIDS crisis is giving new impetus to the campaign, according to its supporters. A small but apparently growing number of AIDS patients has begun, like the Jenkses, to smoke marijuana to suppress nausea and stimulate their appetites. Using pot helps them gain weight and cope with the side effects of AZT and other anti-AIDS drugs, some doctors and AIDS workers say.
"I think there's going to be a groundswell around this issue," said Michael Merdian, executive director of the National Assn. of People With AIDS, a nationwide support group.
So far, there is little hard evidence that marijuana is widely accepted among AIDS patients. Pot has become increasingly expensive (it currently sells for as much as $400 an ounce) and many doctors say there are equally effective alternatives, such as Marinol, the legal prescription drug made from synthetic delta-9-THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
Merdian said there is some reason to believe that AIDS patients get better results from smoking their THC. As many users learned long ago, smoking marijuana can stimulate the appetite. At a recent meeting attended by 30 long-term AIDS survivors, 20 acknowledged having smoked pot during the course of their treatment, Merdian said.
"I think there's a significant number of people who are helped by this," he said. "The biggest problem (for AIDS patients) is that doctors are quick to prescribe psychotropic drugs to deal with the stress (of AIDS), and people say these wipe them out. But people who smoke marijuana said they can continue to relieve their stress and increase their appetite."
Stephen Stone, general counsel to the DEA, dismissed such statements as arguments of the "pro-marijuana" lobby whose real agenda is legalization. "There are no medical studies showing marijuana is an effective treatment," Stone said. "It's all anecdotal stuff."
Richard Schwartz, a Vienna, Va., pediatrician, said he recently surveyed 140 oncologists and learned that marijuana, or THC, was ranked sixth among all known treatments for severe nausea and vomiting.
Marijuana or THC relieved these symptoms in 50% of their patients, although one out of four, primarily elderly patients who had no previous experience with the drug, reported adverse reactions, such as "being goofy, lightheadedness and dizziness," Schwartz said.
"Marijuana has a niche," Schwartz concluded, "but it's a small niche."