Reports of increases in the prevalence of marijuana smoking, especially among young people, have led to concerns about possible genotoxic effects from marijuana use due to exposure to the mutagenic and carcinogenic agents present in marijuana smoke. Prior studies of the adverse health consequences of marijuana smoking, using disease outcomes, have sometimes been confounded by the fact that most marijuana smokers also smoke tobacco. In the present study, the potential mutagenic effects of marijuana smoking were investigated with a somatic cell mutation assay that detects mutations occurring in vivo in the hprt gene. Subjects were volunteers recruited from a prenatal clinic that performs urine drug screens on all consenting patients. Blood samples were collected from 17 subjects whose drug screens indicated marijuana use, but who did not smoke tobacco or use cocaine or opiates, and 17 non-smokers with negative drug screens. Absence of tobacco use was confirmed by plasma cotinine tests. Cord blood samples were collected from newborns of 5 of the marijuana smokers and 5 non-smokers. Lymphocytes were isolated, cryopreserved, and later thawed and assayed with the autoradiographic hprt assay. The frequency of variant (mutant) lymphocytes (Vf) in the 17 non-smokers (+/- standard error) was 1.93 (+/- 0.17) per million evaluatable cells. The Vf of 17 marijuana smokers was more than three-fold higher, 6.48 (+/- 0.48) x 10(-6), a significant difference, p < 0.001. Cord blood lymphocytes from 5 newborns of non-smokers had a Vf of 0.85 (+/- 0.23) x 10(-6), compared to 2.55 (+/- 0.60) x 10(-6) for 5 newborns of marijuana smokers, significantly higher, p < 0.05. Because of the known association between increases in somatic mutations and the development of malignancies, this study indicates that marijuana smokers may have an elevated risk of cancer. For pregnant marijuana smokers, there is also concern for the possibility of genotoxic effects on the fetus, resulting in heightened risk of birth defects or childhood cancer.