By Christina Gallagher

Thugs are reported to be robbing Aids sufferers of their anti-retroviral drugs - and then smoking them to get high.

Patients who collect their ARVs at St Mary's Hospital in the Valley of a Thousand Hills, in KwaZulu-Natal, have complained to community outreach co-ordinators that people are stealing Stocrin, a commonly used ARV, from them and using it to achieve a high which they claim is far better than other recreational drugs.

"People of all ages are stealing it from patients and smoking it together with dagga," said Nancy Sias, a community worker who hands out government-sponsored ARVs at the hospital.

"They say it gives them a better high than Mandrax and it makes them feel dizzy, weird and have wonderful dreams."

Sias said she first heard about the thefts in January, but said that as far as she was aware, it was not happening on a large scale.

Patients using Stocrin, also known as Efavirenz and Sustiva, can sometimes experience neuropsychological side effects from the drug such as dizziness, difficulty sleeping, drowsiness and unusual dreams. In some cases users have also reported having hallucinatory experiences while awake. Experts say using alcohol and street drugs with Stocrin can worsen side-effects.

An unnamed doctor quoted on an American website about HIV/Aids said individuals had told her they sometimes took more than one dose of Stocrin to achieve a "buzz".

But health and HIV and Aids advocacy professionals at the Helen Joseph Hospital, the Esselen Street Clinic in Hillbrow, the Aids Consortium, and the Treatment Action Campaign said they had not heard of people using Stocrin as an illegal drug.

"I don't think that our patients are that sophisticated," said a nurse in the HIV and Aids unit at Helen Joseph Hospital.

Another professional said he had heard of people taking it orally because of the disassociative state it caused, but said it was odd that people were smoking it.