Francis L. Young would like to make one point right off the bat: He does not now, nor has he ever, smoked marijuana.

In fact, he is not precisely sure what a marijuana cigarette looks like. "I gather it looks like a mini sort of cigar that comes to a point at both ends," said Young, the chief administrative law judge for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "But I wouldn't know . . . . As you can see, I'm not of the hippie generation."

Yet Young, a courtly 60 years old, brashly cut against the prevailing winds when he recently issued a ruling that advanced, at least in part, one of the lost causes of the 1960s -- reform of the nation's marijuana laws.

In a 68-page opinion contrary to Reagan administration policy, Young recommended a modified legalization of the country's most popular illicit drug for some medical purposes.

Concluding that the evidence of marijuana's medical benefits was "clear beyond any question," Young formally urged DEA Administrator John C. Lawn to reclassify marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act, thereby permitting doctors to prescribe it for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, as well as for victims of multiple scleroris and spasticity.

It was, some of his defenders say, a typical opinion for Young: solidly researched, lucidly written and in almost complete defiance of the medical establishment and the official position of his agency. Indeed, two years ago, Young stirred up a similar controversy when he recommended that the psychoactive drug "Ecstasy" -- then undergoing a fad among Yuppie drug users -- be made legally available to psychiatrists for use in treating their patients.

Such opinions have made Young a hero to a small band of medical dissenters who have been arguing for years that the nation's punitive drug laws are misguided. "Judge Young is a remarkable man," said Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and a longtime adviser to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "When you read his opinion, you say, 'Boy, there is at least somebody in the government who's willing to speak the truth and not just go along with the established unwisdom.' "

At the same time, Young has come under sharp attack from antidrug activists and is treated as something of a pariah within his agency. DEA officials, who privately say they were appalled by Young's marijuana decision, advised reporters that Lawn is virtually certain to reject the recommendation, thereby assuring the battle will spill over into the courts and carry on for years.

But in an interview in his K Street office, Young made clear that getting overturned by his administrator -- or being sharply criticized by other agency officials -- is not a propsect that bothers him.

"I don't write to please him {Lawn}," said a cheerful Young, an avid sailing enthusiast who began presiding over DEA administrative proceedings 13 years ago. "I do not have a bureaucratic mindset . . . . I think I bring a fresh approach to these questions, which I think is what I'm supposed to do."

Perhaps nothing illustrates Young's "fresh" approach more than a controversial passage of his opinion in which he analyzes the relative dangers of marijuana, noting that -- unlike virtually every other drug, including household aspirin -- there is no known dosage that is considered lethal.

Young calls this "remarkable," noting that in the 5,000 years that human beings are believed to have been smoking the drug, "there are simply no credible medical reports to suggest that consuming marijuana has caused a single death."

Medical researchers have failed in their efforts to kill laboratory animals by feeding them enormous amounts of marijuana, Young said.

"In strict medical terms, marijuana is far safer than many foods we commonly consume," Young concluded. "For example, eating 10 raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparison, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death. Marijuana in its natural form is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man."

Those comments in particular drew strong protests, although some researchers acknowledged that within the narrowly defined terms he was using, Young was probably on target. The literature on marijuana, however, remains perpetually in dispute, and marijuana defenders acknowledge that some recent studies have found disturbing links between heavy marijuana smoking and pulmonary and lung damage, similar to that caused by prolonged tobacco smoking.

But in terms of a direct physical threat to the body, "it's probably true that its greatest danger is if a bale of it falls on you," said David Friedman, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse's preclinical research division and the official in charge of overseeing that agency's marijuana research. "There is, however, a danger when people abuse it and become obsessively involved with its use," he said.

In any case, Young emphasized that he noted this in his opinion. "I affirmatively said it {marijuana} is dangerous and it is abused," he said. "But so are a number of other drugs whose legitimate therapeutic uses are accepted."

Striking that balance -- between the potential dangers and the potential medical benefits -- was at the core of the marijuana proceeding, which Young described as a "monster" and the biggest in his career at DEA. Started in 1972 in the form of a petition by NORML, the case was kicked back and forth between the courts and the agency for years. In the end, it generated 18 bound notebooks of testimony and 13 days of public hearings around the country last fall and earlier this year, all presided over by Young.

During those hearings, Young relied heavily on anecdotal accounts from individual doctors and patients who testifed that smoking marijuana was sometimes the only relief they could find to help cope with the nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite caused by chemotherapy.

"A lot of people have not had the opportunity that I've had to see the evidence produced in this case and to sit down and analyze it," said Young. "They {critics} were not looking at the issue I was looking at. They were looking at this in terms of the issues that were troubling them."