It's time for the country to have an open, honest, fearless discussion about our drug laws.

While the "tough on drugs" crowd shouts their views from the rooftops, people in positions of power and authority who believe we need to rethink our approach to drug use in this country – and there are many of them – keep a much lower profile. That means the jail-them-and-throw-away-the-key people win the national argument every time.

As I write this, I have to fight the reticence I've developed over the years about broaching this topic in public. Thirty years as a public school teacher taught me to keep silent about my opinion that our strict drug laws do more harm than good. I had no desire to fend off a firestorm of accusations that I was advocating teen drug use or setting a bad example for my students.

So I talked about my views with friends — teachers and others — and found a sizable number of them agreed with me. But they too always felt more comfortable talking in private than in public.

If teachers and other professionals worry about talking openly about easing drug laws, it's nothing compared to the pressure on politicians. Any elected officials who don't have firm locks on their seats know they have to talk tough about "cracking down on drug users" or find themselves out of a job next election.

Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia has made a small crack in the wall of silence. He's leading the charge in Congress for reforming our criminal justice system. In a floor speech, he spoke of the skyrocketing number of people we imprison in this country:

"We have 5 percent of the world's population; we have 25 percent of the world's known prison population. We have an incarceration rate in the United States, the world's greatest democracy, that is five times as high as the average incarceration rate of the rest of the world. There are only two possibilities here: either we have the most evil people on earth living in the United States; or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice."

And one of the reasons for the size of our prison population, Webb continued, is the rising number of people we lock up for drug offenses: from 41,000 in 1980 to more than 500,000 today, a 1,200 percent increase. Many of them are guilty of nothing more than possession.

This is a simple statement of facts, but coming from a member of Congress, it stands out as a courageous act, especially since Webb is a freshman senator from a moderate-to-conservative state and won his seat by a razor-thin margin.

I'm far from an expert on this topic, but I know we do ourselves a disservice when we stifle discussion. I would like to see marijuana legalized at the national level. The laws against its use have been as ineffective as Prohibition was in the 1920s, with many of the same negative consequences. The effects and dangers of marijuana use are so similar to alcohol that it seems ridiculous to ban one and legalize the other.

The subject gets far more complicated when the drugs become more powerful and addictive. But when I weigh the benefits of our War on Drugs against the huge costs of the war – costs to people, property and the government – I advocate, at the very least, decriminalization accompanied by strong regulation for most drugs.

A retiree friend in Green Valley told me he thinks people like Senator Webb are inviting the rest of us to get the discussion going. My friend is one of many quiet advocates of legalizing drugs who defy the counterculture stereotype. He believes this discussion has to percolate from the bottom up, that people like us need to push those in power to give the topic the serious attention it deserves. I couldn't agree more.

Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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