On a recent Saturday afternoon, the musty smell of marijuana smoke drifts across part of the Boston Common. Four teenagers sit on a park bench passing a "joint" back and forth, laughing and smoking. Couples stroll past. Children play nearby.
The teens' public smoking of cannabis, even though it is illegal to possess marijuana and they could be arrested, reflects the rising use and acceptance of the drug in American culture by many teens and adults. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, marijuana is the "most commonly used illicit drug in the United States."
More than 67.5 million Americans have tried marijuana at least once in their life, says the 1992 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. And marijuana use among teens, according to a number of recent studies, is on the rise after 13 years of steady decline until 1992..
Increasingly, teens view marijuana as a benign choice, a recreational drug among so-called harder illicit drugs or alcohol. Marijuana is now celebrated widely and portrayed humorously in rock lyrics, videos, and on T-shirts and clothing for teens. Many adults, as role models in American culture, approve of and use marijuana as easily as they use legal drugs.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that in 1994, 13 percent of eighth-graders, 25.4 percent of 10th-graders, and 30.7 percent of 12th-graders smoked marijuana. "Anyone who thinks we've licked the drug problem in this country is living in a fantasy land," says Donna Shalala, secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Last week the National Parents' Resource Institute for Drug Education (PRIDE) in Atlanta reported that one-third of all high school seniors smoked marijuana in the last year. And one-fifth say they smoke it regularly. The PRIDE survey involved 198,241 students in 32 states.
In recent studies, Maine, New York, and Baltimore County in Maryland have cited the increased teen use of marijuana. In New York, the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse says the number of teens in the state who smoke marijuana at least four times a month jumped from 6 percent to 12 percent between 1990 and 1994.
"There has been a decline recently in the number of students who feel marijuana is harmful to their health," says Doug Hall, a spokesman for PRIDE.
"Students tell us that marijuana is more available now, and peer pressure is greater. And fewer students are telling us that their parents are giving them warnings about drug use."
If parents do discuss drugs with their teens and set clear rules, the PRIDE report indicates marijuana use drops somewhat. PRIDE recommends that parents have a continuing dialogue with their children about drugs all the way through the school years.
If parents are lax in discussing the implication of drugs, the entertainment world has another view to offer. "There's a new CD just released called 'Hempilation,' " says Steve Dnistrian, senior vice president of the Partnership for a Drug Free America. "This is a collection of songs by adults praising marijuana and is a blatant example of glamorization that contributes to kids' perceptions about drugs not being dangerous."
As teenagers' use of marijuana increases, the long-standing debate over marijuana's harm has been revived, along with the charge that it is a "gateway" drug for teens.
"The preponderance of evidence from the leading medical institutions in the world," says Mr. Hall, "indicates that marijuana is a harmful substance to the health of an individual."
Proponents of the decriminalization of marijuana often point out that there is no known case of a death caused by an overdose of the drug. "There isn't a single case," says Allen St. Pierre, a spokesman for National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Washington. "It's a matter of putting marijuana in perspective," he says. "When juxtaposed with alcohol and tobacco, it pales in damage."
But does it?
Marijuana is a substance that comes from a plant called Cannabis Sativa containing delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, a mind-altering drug.
The hundreds of scientists who favor the continued prohibition of marijuana, and the fewer scientists who favor the use of it, or at least the decriminalization of it, all agree that smoking "pot" subjects the user to the same carcinogens and toxic elements as tobacco.
Daily use of marijuana can produce the same results, or slightly worse, as tobacco. The difference in marijuana is the psychoactive impact, which can differ from person to person depending on a variety of factors.
A 1993 HHS study of 350 hospitals found that more teenagers were treated in emergency rooms after using marijuana than teens involved in heroin and cocaine. Some 4,293 teens were treated because of results from marijuana, against 1,583 for involvement with cocaine.
But proponents of marijuana contend that for every "con" study there is a "pro" study. "What we have now are like flashcards," says Mr. St. Pierre. "I hold up a study. You hold up a study."
For advocates of marijuana, the enormous social costs of prohibition, and defining users as criminals, is misplaced because people will continue to use marijuana. In a society where the drug is decriminalized, NORML favors restricting the distribution of marijuana to adults only.
"Marijuana has consequences," says St. Pierre. "Actually I think taking smoke into the body is a pretty insane concept."
But talk of marijuana's harmful effects begs the question of the effects of the government's efforts to stop its use, he says. Right now the government "does more than any Orwellian nightmare dreamed of doing, from urine-testing children to children being taught to turn in their parents."
For many teenagers, cigarettes come first, then marijuana. "We do subscribe to the gateway theory," Hall says.
"The rising use of cigarette smoking by students breaks a barrier. If they smoke cigarettes and inhale, it's a much smaller step to marijuana, particularly for children 11, 12, and 13."
But how many teens go from marijuana to harder drugs is difficult to determine. "Millions of people who have smoked marijuana have not gone out to shoot heroin," Mr. Dnistrian says. "But it makes sense to us and others that as the pool of kids experimenting increases, some will go looking for a different type and a more potent high."