HEALTH

Debate over legalization of marijuana grows nationwide

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With D.C soon to have legal medical marijuana dispensaries, and Colorado and Washington State approving marijuana for recreational use, the push to legalize pot is growing.

After years of aggressive anti-smoking campaigns, could we ironically now see a surge in 'new' smokers? And is a joint better or worse than a cigarette?

Studies show more kids now smoke marijuana than cigarettes. And half of Americans say it should be legal.

America's fears about marijuana, it seems, are going up in smoke.

Teenagers now think smoking cigarettes is far worse than smoking pot, with 78 percent of 12th graders saying cigarettes are bad for you, but only 44 percent think marijuana is, according to a study from the University of Michigan.

But is a joint really safer than a cigarette? Smoking either marijuana or tobacco releases tar, carbon monoxide and cancer-causing agents.

Dr. David Abrams of the anti-smoking Legacy Foundation says cigarettes are far more addictive than pot because they contain nicotine, which is comparable to heroin in its addictive pull. Marijuana does not contain nicotine, but it does pose other risks.

"It's not benign," Abrams says. "It causes mental problems, it causes DNA damag, so there could be damage to sperm or reproduction and it does damage your lungs."

But across town, at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), they disagree.

Allen St. Pierre, NORML's executive director, says most pot smokers don't smoke nearly as much as cigarette smokers. He says marijuana should be legalized, like tobacco and alcohol, and let people decide for themselves.

"It is much, much safer than tobacco," Abrams says. "Like any vegetable product, it's an unwise health decision to dry it, smoke it and dry it into your lungs. But the question is, should that be a crime?"

Some law enforcement officers say it should still be illegal but for another reason.

"Everybody that we've met that's done heroin, meth, you name it, any illegal drug, they started smoking marijuana," says Sgt. James Cox of the Fairfax County Police narcotics division.

Research is complicated by the fact that many people who smoke pot also smoke cigarettes.

Finding solid answers isn't easy in an issue clouded increasingly by politics - and a whiff of potentially big profits.

There is no definitive link between lung cancer and pot, as there is with tobacco, though opponents say they just haven't done enough research.

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