While some lawmakers are discussing ways to allow marijuana use for medical purposes, a substance-abuse research group says young people who smoke marijuana are far more likely than nonusers to move on to harder drugs.
Joseph Califano, chairman and president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, says his organization's report indicates that marijuana is a "gateway drug" that leads kids to try such substances as cocaine or heroin. According to the center's report, youngsters 12 to 17 years old who smoke marijuana are 85 times more likely to use cocaine than those who do not.
"Marijuana has become a major drug of choice among kids now," Califano told CBS News. "We put the report out and did this analysis because with all the discussion of medical marijuana, we don't want people to think that whatever medical value marijuana may have in certain circumstances, it should be around for general use any more than cocaine or opiates which have some medical use."
The report was released as the House Government Reform Committee held a second hearing Tuesday on the pros and cons of decriminalizing drugs. Testifying were former Drug Enforcement Administration head Thomas Constantine and advocates of relaxed laws on marijuana use.
Focusing on nonmedical use of marijuana, the report said the drug is especially dangerous for teens, impairing short-term memory, stunting intellectual and emotional growth and increasing the likelihood of unprotected sex.
It said that of 182,000 teens and children who entered treatment in 1996 for substance abuse, nearly half, 48 percent, were admitted for marijuana abuse or addiction.
The report concluded that loosening marijuana laws would surely increase use among teen-agers and children. But it also opposed mandatory sentences for possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying prosecutors and judges should be given wide discretion in order to encourage teens to stop using the drug.
The report said that 70 million Americans have tried marijuana, making it the nation's most commonly used illegal substance. It also concluded that kids who never tried marijuana by the time they were 21-years-old, were less likely to ever use it. Califano says parents need to help teens understand that marijuana is a drug that will affect them mentally and can lead to other addictions.
Meanwhile, California lawmakers are debating a plan to establish a "registry" of medical marijuana patients to protect qualified growers and users from prosecution.
State Attorney General Bill Lockyer, presenting a set of recommendations from a committee of police officials, medical marijuana advocates and doctors, said the proposed registry could cut through the legal tangle over medical marijuana use in the nation's largest state.
"This was not an easy issue," Lockyer told a news conference on Monday. "For the past three years law enforcement, doctors an seriously ill Californians have struggled to find an appropriate manner to respect the will of the voters and protect the public safety."
The committee's proposals are aimed at ending a logjam over medical marijuana, which Californians voted to legalize in the state for certain medical purposes in 1996.
Since then, however, federal officials and the state's previous attorney general, Republican Dan Lungren, have mounted a series of legal challenges to the state law, shutting down medical marijuana "clubs" and vowing to prosecute users under existing narcotics laws.
Under the registry idea, already pioneered in Oregon, individuals with serious diseases including AIDS, cancer, glaucoma and migraines would be offered the chance to register voluntarily with the state Department of Health Services and county health departments as potential medical marijuana patients.
After checking with their physicians, health officials would issue permits to legitimate marijuana users and their caregivers protecting them from arrest and prosecution for possession, transport or cultivation of the drug.