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Marijuana trend shifting toward acceptance

When it comes to marijuana, the three freshmen at George Washington University were solidly in agreement - as if considering the merits of early morning classes or pain-in-the-neck roommates.

"Cigarettes are worse," said Craig Brooks, 18, of Long Island, N.Y. "We all know that."Fellow Long Islander Michelle Rubinstein piped up, "We just don't make an issue of it. Marijuana is accepted."

"I don't think any of it is good for you," added Jake Kaplan, 18, of Westchester County, N.Y. "But we hear about the problems with tobacco. You don't hear anything like that about marijuana."

The consensus reached recently in the hallway of Thurston Hall, the university's 1,000-bed freshman dorm, underscores a growing trend among American youths.

Call it a shift from Reefer Madness to Reefer Gladness, as use of marijuana rises along with support for its legalization, according to recent surveys of student attitudes.

The affinity for marijuana flies in the face of growing conservatism in other areas, according to surveys that show today's college freshmen are more apt to favor restricting abortion rights and are less accepting of gay relationships than students in recent years.

"I'm not surprised students think it should be legalized because it's the most accessible thing out there next to liquor," said Amy Kim, a freshman at the University of Arizona. "It's out there, but it isn't a big deal. If you don't smoke, you just disregard it."

Support for marijuana legalization has grown among college freshmen from just 16.7 percent in 1989 to 35.2 percent in 1997, according to a study by the University of California, Los Angeles for the Washington-based American Council on Education.

Marijuana use among high school seniors also is rising. More than 50 percent of seniors say they have smoked it compared with 33 percent who admitted to its use in 1992, according to Dr. Lloyd Johnston, author of an annual report on youth trends involving drugs for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Steve Dnistrian, senior vice president of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, said he is disappointed by the survey results but not surprised.

"We had the media focus. We had the government focus. Kids were exposed to the message and decided it wasn't worth it to smoke," Dnistrian said. "We burned out giving the message, and the public burned out on hearing it."

Keith Stroup, founder and executive director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, believes that students' familiarity with marijuana is breeding newfound acceptance of it.