America's War on Drugs needs a big dose of common sense - a commodity in short supply in Washington, D.C.
The gap between U.S. drug-control policies and citizen preferences is widest when we consider how tax dollars are spent and how government policies are working their way into the doctor's office.
Asked to cite the most effective government actions to control use of illegal drugs, only 4 percent of Americans recommended arresting drug users, says a 2001 national survey by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Yet that same year, $7.8 billion - 67 percent of drug enforcement funds - was spent to arrest 1.28 million people for drug possession.
In 2002, another 1.23 million drug possession arrests were made - about half of them for possession of marijuana.
The "tragedy and shocking injustice hidden in those figures [is] the product of an almost mindlessly draconian system called 'mandatory sentencing' in which even small offenses can draw years in prison," says retired newsman Walter Cronkite.
Thousands of those arrested - nonviolent "offenders" who have harmed no one else - end up with shortened lives. They do jail time and lose student loans, the right to housing benefits and their drivers licenses. Families are torn apart and children left without adequate support.
So taxpayers are paying twice. Once with the billions spent arresting users, and again helping to repair the human tragedies the arrests create.
Pew also asked: "Regardless of what you think about the personal non-medical use of marijuana, do you think doctors should or should not be allowed to prescribe marijuana for medical purposes to treat their patients?"
Nationally, 73 percent said doctors should be allowed to prescribe marijuana for patients. In no region of the country did this response dip below 72 percent. And among people with incomes over $75,000, the affirmative response was 83 percent.
Clearly, Americans want their doctors, not the government, to decide whether marijuana should be used as a medical treatment.
But the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency says flatly: "Under federal authority, there is no such thing as medical marijuana," and doctors prescribing marijuana are criminals who deserve to be punished.
Conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr., founder and editor of the "National Review," recently wrote that marijuana laws were built on "moral fanaticism" and need reform.
"What is required," he said, "is a genuine Republican groundswell. It is happening, but ever so gradually."
Buckley cited a 2003 Zogby survey showing that 2 of every 5 Americans believe "the government should treat marijuana more or less the same way it treats alcohol: It should regulate it, control it, tax it, and make it illegal only for children."
Buckley long has favored this approach. In a 1992 column, he even said, "Legalize drugs for those over 21, and execute anyone convicted of selling drugs to a minor."
Groundswells for change are not rooted in either major political party. They start within the population and trickle up through the political parties. When it comes to drug laws, Buckley claims, "politicians high from righteousness" are lagging behind the minds of the people, and it's time they get busy and play catch-up.
At least 40 percent of the voters seem to agree.