Although marijuana was minimized as a recreational drug in the 1960s, it's seen as a much more potent substance today.
"It's classified as a hallucinogenic drug with mild addicting qualities," said Matt Felix of the National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Dependence. "But the problem with it today is that, marijuana growers have become extremely good horticulturists and the THC of today's marijuana is 20 times as great as it was in the '60s and '70s."
Because of this heightened concentration of its active ingredient, THC or tetrahydrocannabinol, marijuana is nicknamed "wheelchair drug" or "knock-out weed," Felix said.
He said national surveys show it sends more people to the emergency room than ever before.
People who smoke marijuana and then drive may weave on the highway as if they have consumed alcohol, Felix said, "but we have no immediate test, like a breath test, that gives police probable cause for arrest." As a result, such drivers pulled over by police and troopers are rarely cited.
Marijuana is considered a "gateway drug," meaning use of it early in life can open the door to use of harder drugs - those with a more significant physical or psychological dependency - in subsequent years.
"Statistics show that just about everybody who is subject to high-risk behavior and uses marijuana is willing to use other drugs eventually," Felix said.
The early attraction of the drug is confirmed by a 1999 study of Alaska's youth. The study found that 30.7 percent of Alaska students reported current marijuana use as compared to 27.1 percent of U.S. students. "Current use" was defined as partaking one or more times in the past 30 days.
Two years ago, the state Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse and the Epidemiology Section of the state Department of Health and Human Services wanted to measure the extent of substance abuse as a basis for determining the need for treatment programs. They hired the Gallup Organization, which conducted a telephone survey.
Gallup concluded in March 1998 that the substance abused most widely in Alaska is alcohol. Among controlled drugs, dependency on marijuana was most common, with 4.2 percent of the population estimated as dependent and an additional 1 percent defined as abusers.
Gallup found that 1.1 percent of Southeast's population of 52,538 had a lifetime diagnosis of marijuana dependence, with another 0.4 percent abusing it. In Bush communities, they found a 2.5 percent dependence rate on marijuana. Gallup also found that race and ethnicity appear to affect the figures: "Alaska Natives and Native Americans evidence marijuana dependency (1.9 percent) at a rate nearly double that of whites (1 percent)."
In a national survey on drug abuse conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 29.4 percent of the country's population had used marijuana or hashish at least once in their lifetimes as of 1985. That number increased gradually to 32.9 percent in 1997. However, 84.9 percent of the population used alcohol during its lifetime in 1985, which decreased slowly to 81.9 percent in 1997.