WHAT IS IT ABOUT MARIJUANA that makes politicians hallucinate? The faintest whiff of “the weed of madness” (as government propaganda used to call it) causes them to see distorted images of things that aren’t there and never were: law and order, justice, reelection. But they don’t see the obvious. The war on drugs was lost years ago, and pretending otherwise only makes the problem worse.

Consider the two marijuana-related bills that were introduced in the Texas Legislature during the 2005 session—each eminently practical, neither with serious downsides, and both essentially dead on arrival. The first, written by Democratic state representative Harold Dutton, of Houston, would have reduced the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana. It was approved by the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence but never reached the floor for debate or a vote. In Texas, 97 percent of all marijuana arrests are for simple possession—an ounce or less—at a cost to taxpayers of $480 million a year. (Full disclosure: In 1968 I was arrested for possession of about two ounces of pot, which at the time could have meant life in prison; the charges were dropped after my lawyer got the search warrant thrown out.) In America, we spend nearly $8 billion trying to enforce the laws prohibiting the use and possession of marijuana. All we get for our money is a huge increase in organized crime, an endless string of drug-related murders, and the highest incarceration rate in the civilized world.

The second bill, which was written by several House members, including Republican Terry Keel and Democrat Elliot Naishtat, both of Austin, would have facilitated the use of medical marijuana, or “medi-pot.” It never got out of committee, even though there is ample evidence that smoking pot eases pain and reduces nausea associated with cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, and other illnesses; it may also have a role in combating heart disease and strokes. The medi-pot bill was simple and straightforward—so elementary, in fact, that it was probably unworkable. It didn’t legalize marijuana, but it did allow doctors to discuss it as an option with their patients and provided an affirmative defense for patients who are busted for following doctor’s orders. But it didn’t address, for example, how and where patients could obtain this still-illegal substance.

A number of witnesses in wheelchairs appeared before the committee in April, admitting that they regularly violated drug laws and explaining that marijuana in its natural form was the only drug that relieved their suffering. Chris Cain, a 36-year-old quadriplegic who has smoked pot for twelve years to control pain and spasms, described how his home near Beaumont was raided by a team of Hardin County sheriff’s deputies with the assistance of two helicopters; they seized a small amount of marijuana and the computer equipment he uses to run his Internet business, then threw him in jail without regard to his need for medical attention. “I’m just asking for a fair trial,” Cain told committee members. “I’m now a university graduate and a successful businessman. Marijuana has not damaged my brain, but it has made me a criminal.”

Polls show that 75 percent of Texans support medical marijuana, and they’re not the only ones. As of February, ten states had adopted laws permitting the use of medi-pot (although in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that medi-pot users can be federally prosecuted), and thirty had recognized its therapeutic potential. Still, the response to it here is mixed at best. One member of the committee, Democratic state representative Juan Escobar, of Kingsville, spent his career fighting drugs as a border patrolman and, later, as the head of an anti-drug task force. Nevertheless, Escobar is so convinced that medical marijuana makes sense that he supported it. Keel, a former county sheriff, told his fellow lawmakers: “We have, for some reason in our pharmacology, isolated that particular herb as not of medical value when, in fact, it is.” Yet Democratic state representative Aaron Peña, of Edinburg, whose vote the bill’s sponsors had counted on, couldn’t bring himself to back it. He acknowledges that the drug war is lost. “All we’re doing is loading up our prisons and burdening our taxpayers,” he told me. “We need a paradigm shift toward treatment and education, and we need it fast.” Ever since his sixteen-year-old son died four years ago of a drug overdose, however, he has dedicated himself to keeping kids off the stuff. “If I voted for it,” he said, “how could I keep telling them that drugs are harmful?”

Though marijuana has been used medicinally for hundreds of years and was prescribed by doctors in the U.S. until the thirties, the government decided years ago that weed is a menace. In 1933 the feds launched their famous “reefer madness” campaign under Harry Anslinger, the zealous federal narcotics commissioner who supplied bogus information to the media that marijuana was responsible for insanity and violence. A federal law enacted in 1937 put marijuana in the same category as cocaine and opium. In 1970 Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, grouping marijuana with heroin as a narcotic with no medical use. In 1988 the Drug Enforcement Administration’s chief law judge declared that “marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known to man” and ruled that it be made available to doctors, but the agency ignored him.

Over time, law enforcement officials have repeatedly misled the public and the media about the so-called scourge of drugs. General Barry McCaffrey, Bill Clinton’s drug czar, should have known better when he told the Washington Post in April 2000 that “illegal drugs will cost the United States 500,000 deaths…over the next decade.” A twenty-year study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that from 1979 through 1998, illegal drugs were the cause of just over 44,000 deaths, compared with the 380,000 poor souls whose deaths could be tied to alcohol. Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s drug czar, John Walters, has used his office to lobby against medical marijuana programs in various states. With increasing frequency, federal narcotics enforcers have conducted raids on growing operations. Even accepting the fact that the war on drugs has been waged for political rather than scientific ends, with arrest and imprisonment preferable to treatment and education, how could policy makers ignore something as benign as medi-pot? A cynic might suggest that their motive is to appease the far right, which has a pathological fear that some terminally ill wretch might smoke a little boo and break out in giggles.

Finding ourselves in such a monstrous hole, you’d hope someone would suggest we stop digging—and someone has. Several someones, in fact: a few of the smartest people in America, many of them conservative Republicans. Among those who have championed the legalization of marijuana are William F. Buckley, Nobel prize—winning economist Milton Friedman, former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz, and former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. In his keynote address at the Fifth International Conference on Drug Policy Reform, in 1991, Friedman said that the country should admit that drug prohibition is a policy disaster, just as we once conceded as much for the prohibition of alcohol. The war on drugs and the harm it does, he has written, are “manifestations of a much broader problem: the substitution of political mechanisms for market mechanisms . . . ” It has failed, he contends, because it’s a “socialist enterprise” that is inefficient, expensive, and very advantageous to a small group of people—in this case, the drug enforcement agencies for whom the war is a raison d’être and the drug lords whose cartels are a byproduct of U.S. policy.

Another conservative Republican who thinks prohibition is a dumb idea is the “right-wing-nutcase” I wrote about a few months back, my pal Dr. Robert McFarlane (“The Thrill of the Hunt,” March 2005). The Harvard-educated cardiologist has written dozens of letters and e-mails to politicians and friends arguing that drugs should be treated as a public health problem rather than a criminal matter. In an essay published in the Palestine Herald- Press in March, Doc wrote: “By legalizing drugs, the profitability in their sale would evaporate, which would, in one stroke, eliminate everywhere the incentive to grow poppies and thus end the narco-wars in Afghanistan and Colombia…[and] would drastically lower the crime rate here and empty out our prisons.” In recent months Doc has forwarded me news items about drug-related murders and reports of conversations with fellow wingnuts. After his piece ran in the Herald-Press, one conservative judge told him, “Heresy is just the truth spoken prematurely.” A top Republican strategist confessed to Doc that his plan had merit but thought drug laws ought to stay on the books “because people are weak.”

That nanny instinct, so at odds with traditional Republican dogma, is one of the arguments made by a conservative couple from Houston, Bob and Ann Lee, who for years have waged a campaign to legalize marijuana. “Current drug policies violate Republican philosophy of personal responsibility,” the Lees wrote in a widely distributed pamphlet that rebuts many of the arguments advanced by drug warriors. They come to the subject with a heavy heart: Their son Richard is in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down since a work accident damaged his spinal column in 1990. Legal drugs had serious side effects, so Richard turned to pot, at which point his parents discovered that most of what the government had told them about it wasn’t true.

Exposing government lies is the easy part—and making drugs illegal doesn’t keep them out of the hands of kids. Schoolchildren can’t buy hard liquor, but hard drugs are as available as candy on the black market. Would legalization increase drug use? Maybe. But the use of tobacco, probably the most lethal drug today, has dramatically decreased because of intense anti-smoking campaigns. Some people will use drugs no matter what the consequences, but as Friedman and others point out, the user primarily harms himself. When he harms others, we do something about it, just as we arrest those who drink and drive. We arrest them not for the act of drinking but for the act of driving drunk.

Ending the war on drugs will take time, but politicians need to show some backbone. They should do what’s best for America and ignore the fringe types who won’t be happy until they’re again allowed to burn witches. In the words of philosopher Robert Nozick, they should legalize “capitalist acts between consenting adults” and trust the free market they’re always raving about.