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Colorado at front of U.S. drug war

Colorado Post
Feb 7, 2006
By Dave Curtin
Denver Post Staff Writer

White House czar says marijuana threatens kids. John Walters launched his national policy from the state because of Denver's recent vote legalizing possession of small amounts of pot.

While illicit drug use among teenagers has dropped 19 percent since 2001, John Walters, the nation's drug czar, said increasingly potent marijuana smoked by ever younger children is a new threat.

"This is not your father's marijuana or your father's marijuana problem," Walters said at a news conference in Denver.

While marijuana use among teens has declined since 2001, it remains by far the most commonly used illicit drug and leads to harder drug addiction, Walters said.

"Marijuana is more prevalent than all the other drugs combined for teens," Walters said. "Of the five million 12- to 17-year-olds who used marijuana, 1 million have progressed to addiction."

He called for more aggressive random drug screening in schools and health-care centers to identify and treat young drug addicts.

Overall, in the past five years illicit drug use has dropped among eighth-, 10th- and 12th- graders - accounting for 700,000 teens, Walters said.

Walters was at the Fort Logan Mental Health Institute on Wednesday to unveil a new national anti-drug policy focused on prevention, treatment and disrupting the supply of illegal drugs.

Mason Tvert, campaign director of SAFER (Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation), who spearheaded a successful Denver initiative to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, disputes the drug's risks.

"Marijuana is less addictive than alcohol, tobacco and caffeine, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse," Tvert said. "You can become addicted to cheeseburgers, too."

Tvert says his group advocates neither marijuana nor alcohol use for anyone under 21.

Teenagers treated at Fort Logan, however, said Wednesday their experiences show marijuana is a gateway to harder drugs and addiction.

"I started using marijuana and alcohol daily when I was 14 and it led to cocaine and Ecstasy," said James Harper, 16, who has been in residential treatment at Fort Logan for 4 1/2 months. "As far as marijuana being a gateway drug, I'd have to agree with that."

Ross Andrews, 17, said he started using marijuana when he was 12 or 13. "I did marijuana just to fit in at the beginning

and then you get addicted and start using it every day," he said.

For Davis Condreay, 17, it began by copying his brothers. "I started using marijuana and alcohol when I was in the fourth and fifth grade," he said. "I had seen my older brothers do it and a few friends' parents didn't seem to mind. I didn't see any other way of having fun on weekends and it pretty much screwed me over."

Walters targeted Denver to unveil Bush's drug plan because of the voter-approved marijuana- possession initiative in November, Tvert said.

Walters said he came here because Denver is a transportation hub for drugs and because Colorado confronted burgeoning meth labs with heightened law enforcement.

Gov. Bill Owens and state Attorney General John Suthers, who joined Walters at a news conference, said they are bracing for a possible November state ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. The effort is funded by more than $1 million of out-of-state money.

"Their message is going to be that somehow smoking pot is less of a danger than alcohol abuse so we ought to support it as an alternative," Suthers said. "That's not the message we should send to our children."

"If the initiative gets to the ballot, we will put together a broad- based coalition to oppose it," Owens said.

Walters said the federal government will stand with Colorado officials to oppose such an initiative.

Staff writer Dave Curtin can be reached at 303-820-1276 or dcurtin@denverpost.com.