RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson told his "700 Club" audience that harsh penalties for marijuana possession are costly for the nation and damaging to young people, but a spokesman said Thursday he was not calling for decriminalizing pot.

Robertson, 80, made the comments on the Christian Broadcasting Network in the context of faith-based approaches to treating offenders, the spokesman said.

"Dr. Robertson unequivocally stated that he is against the use of illegal drugs," Chris Roslan wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

The comments, however, were widely interpreted on several websites as an endorsement by the Christian Coalition founder of legalizing marijuana. They were celebrated by NORML, a group that advocates legalization of the drug.

On its website, NORML posted a link to Robertson’s comments under the headline: "Holy Hemp! Pat Robertson Supports Ending Cannabis Prohibition In An Effort To Get ‘Smart On Crime.’"

During the Dec. 16 CBN broadcast from Virginia Beach, Robertson and his co-host discussed what they called the success of religious-based programs to help people with addictions to drugs, including alcohol.

Robertson then lamented long prison terms for people who have "taken a couple puffs of marijuana."

He added, "We’ve got to take a look at what we’re considering crimes and that’s one of ‘em."

Robertson said mandatory drug sentences are promoted by candidates for political office who want to appear tough on crime, compelling judges to sentence offenders to long prison terms.

While Robertson said, "I’m not exactly for the use of drugs," he added that criminalizing the possession of a few ounces of pot is "costing us a fortune and it’s ruining young people. Young people go into prisons, they go in as youths and come out as hardened criminals. That’s not a good thing."

Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, said Robertson is among a growing number of libertarians and "right-of-center" public figures who agree the nation’s drug laws treat marijuana possession too harshly.

"We don’t care how people arrive at the conclusion that prohibition is a failure," he said. "They’re acknowledging there are alternatives to lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key solutions."