The Orlando Sentinel
Special to the Sentinel, 19 May 1996

Kevin Volpe

The war on drugs has unwittingly been shifted away from marijuana because of the misconception that it is not particularly harmful.

Marijuana's role as a gateway drug will soon lead to a major cocaine epidemic while the Clinton administration belatedly gets serious about drug use.

Teen-age marijuana use doubled between 1992 and 1994, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Use. Thirty-five percent of high-school seniors have smoked pot, and although this is 15 percent below levels in 1979, the rate of increase shows no sign of tapering off.

The Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reported in 1994 that 43 percent of those who use marijuana by age 18 move on to use cocaine. Pot users are 266 times more likely to use cocaine than nonusers. Marijuana also serves as the mechanism to introduce sellers of hard drugs into the market, studies show.

An aspiring drug dealer begins with marijuana, obtains it for friends, establishes a network, and learns the skills to avoid law enforcement. Once experienced, he begins to sell heavier substances.

Marijuana activity is far from harmless, as some parents and liberal academics believe.

Legalization proponents who use societal acceptance of alcohol as justification fail to make the distinction between the immediate mind-numbing effects of a drink and the mind-altering effect of a joint. Added to this is increasing evidence that links marijuana use to lung cancer. Health experts estimate that inhaling marijuana has 40 times the detrimental effect of tobacco.

Recent studies show that a marijuana smoker's ability to focus attention is decreased. "Subtle drug-influenced deficits...cause important difficulties in adapting to intellectual and interpersonal tasks," stated Dr. Harrison Pope and Deborah Yurgelun-Todd of Massachusetts' McLean Hospital in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The manifestation of these results is a sharp increase in "drug driving" and industrial accidents while under the influence.

The connection between drug use and an increased crime rate is well established. More than 50 percent of high-school students involved in gang activity or caught bringing guns to school also admit to regular marijuana abuse. Smoking a joint is not the harmless pastime that adults remember from the '70s.

The dangers of drugs have been significantly downplayed in popular culture, and the education system should combat this.

Although the dangers of marijuana alone justify action, its role as a transitional drug to cocaine is cause for alarm. The United States must increase support for those elements fighting drug production and trafficking. Since 1993, the Clinton administration has cut assistance for combatting drugs to Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru by 36 percent, and stopped sending much-needed US military advisers.

The United States needs to continue to develop and invest in technological surveillance equipment, such as infrared radar and improved X-ray devices for cargo inspections. Former presidential candidate Lamar Alexander's idea for a separate military branch to run counterdrug efforts was reactionary and not well thought out. A better idea would be to combine military and civilian resources under an official joint task force.

Spending cuts made during the past four years in the drug war must be reversed, and renewed attention given to drug awareness programs in our schools.

A casual posture toward teen-age marijuana use now will translate into desperate counterdrug measures later, as addiction further corrodes the economic and social foundation of American culture and threatens the security of our nation.

Kevin J. Volpe is a research assistant at the National Defense Council Foundation in Alexandria, VA, and a student at Duke University.