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A 29-year-old mother of three we'll call Amy (she asked to remain anonymous) was introduced to marijuana by friends as a teenager. It became a gateway to harder drugs. "I was in high school," she told Plugged In. "It started there and led to speed, LSD, lithium. It all became very casual after a while and didn't have a negative stigma attached to it."

Indeed, despite being illegal, marijuana gets a wink and a nod in popular music, films and video games. Entertainment sends the message that it's cool. "In general, youth are very much led by their peers, and television becomes like a peer to them," Amy explained. "The more we see things on TV, represented in someone else's life, the more it starts to seem like it's OK, like it's normal."

If prime time is becoming a measure of normalcy, we're in serious trouble. Recently we've witnessed adolescents getting high in their parents' basement (Fox's That '70s Show), young movers and shakers in L.A. smoking pot (HBO's Entourage) and soccer moms dealing marijuana to finance posh, suburban lifestyles (Showtime's Weeds). Most of all, we see Hollywood making a joke out of reefer madness—a tactic often used to soften the culture to inappropriate behavior.

"These are trendsetting shows," said Steve Dnistrian of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. "They affect behavior and attitudes, particularly teens'. When glamorization of drugs has climbed, changes in teen attitudes followed." Consider these facts about marijuana:*

• Marijuana is the most commonly used drug among 16- and 17-year-olds.

• There are more than 200 slang terms for marijuana, a green, brown or gray mixture of dried, shredded leaves, seeds, flowers and stems of the hemp plant.

• The chemical primarily responsible for pot's mind-altering high is THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol). The THC content of marijuana has been on the rise since the 1970s.

• Typically consumed in cigarette form (a "joint" or "nail"), it is also smoked in a pipe or bong. "Blunts" are hollowed out cigars often containing an additional drug, such as crack cocaine.

• Marijuana hinders the ability to concentrate and retain information, and users are more than twice as likely as non-users to drop out of high school.

According to a 2005 study by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, more than 2.9 million American teens eligible to drive admitted to using marijuana. The research also found that, after "a friend's house," "in a car" is the most popular place for smoking it.

"Parents need to realize that drugged driving is nearly as common today among teens as alcohol-impaired driving," said ONDCP director John P. Walters. "Marijuana impairs many of the skills required for safe driving, such as concentration, coordination, perception and reaction time, and these effects can last up to 24 hours after smoking the drug." Data suggest that one in six teens has driven under the influence.

Blame the music. Blame television. Blame absentee parents or even the pusher on the playground. While there's plenty of blame to go around, the reality is that more than one-third of teenagers have smoked pot. And, as Amy learned the hard way, sampling marijuana often leaves young people hungry for the next chemical high. On the other hand, children who resist peer pressure and the lure of dubious entertainment throughout their teen years aren't likely to get rolled and smoked by hazy cultural norms.

"If we can get a child to 20 without using marijuana, there is a 98 percent chance that the child will never become addicted to any drug," said White House Deputy Drug Czar Scott Burns. "While it may come across as an overemphasis on marijuana, you don't wake up when you're 25 and say, 'I want to slam meth!'"

*Facts and figures courtesy of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the National Institute on Drug Abuse

Published February 2006