By Dan Bernath

Chalk it up to chance, changing seasons, or the law of averages finally catching up, but every once in a while our elected leaders in Congress surprise us and do something sensible.

Give credit to Sen. Jim Webb, the freshman Democrat from Virginia who conducted a hearing with the Joint Economic Committee Oct. 4 to examine the costs of mass incarceration.

With the United States comprising only 5 percent of the world's population but nearly a quarter of the world's prisoners, it should never have taken this long for our nation's leaders to turn their attention to this financial, social and humanitarian crisis. But better late than never.

What's more, several committee members agreed with Webb that the Nixonian "public policy experiment" of mass incarceration – during which the U.S. prison population has exploded from 300,000 in 1970 to more than 2 million this year – has never received the political scrutiny it deserves.

We don't really need congressional hearings to determine where those millions of prisoners come from. Many are nonviolent drug offenders – disproportionately poor and African American. Nixon declared war on them more than three decades ago, and we've been paying for it ever since.

Nixon's favorite drug war target of course was the marijuana user. The modern-day heirs to his special brand of paranoia have turned his cynical crusade into a multi-billion dollar bureaucratic empire subject to little effective oversight.

Webb's hearing comes amid mounting evidence that marijuana prohibition, in addition to being cruel and pointless, is becoming increasingly unfeasible. The FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Reports last month, revealing a record number of marijuana arrests for the fourth year in a row – 829,627 to be exact, 89 percent of which were for simple possession, not manufacture or sale.

Nobody knows exactly how many of those arrested for marijuana wind up in jail, but the best figures available suggest it's a significant amount. According to the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 41,507 marijuana arrestees served prison time in 2004 – and that's just in state and federal penitentiaries, not county jails where a great number of marijuana arrestees serve their time. Considering that marijuana arrest rates are much higher than they were in 2004, marijuana incarceration rates are likely higher today as well.

And yet, by almost any measurement, marijuana use rates are far higher than they were 15 years ago when only about a third as many marijuana users were arrested. Traditionally, politicians who dared point that out subjected themselves to the shrill bleating of drug war bureaucrats and the ignominy of being labeled soft on crime and outside the mainstream.

But locking up marijuana users isn't just cruel and ineffective; it's expensive too. According to a report released last month by public policy analyst and HIGH TIMES online contributor Jon Gettman, it's probably a lot more expensive than most people thought. Based on government figures estimating that about five and a half percent of all arrests are marijuana arrests, Gettman puts the total price tag for arresting, processing, trying, punishing and incarcerating marijuana users at $10.7 billion a year.

That could be what ends up changing the tone of this debate. Until now, few politicians have had the courage or the inclination to challenge drug war zealots' marijuana obsession. But fiscal reality may be beginning to force lawmakers to rethink indulging – and financing – these anti-marijuana adventures.

Look at the Texas Legislature – not exactly a bastion of soft-on-crime equivocators – which passed a law that went into effect Sept. 1 allowing police officers the option of citing those caught with less than four ounces of marijuana in a manner similar to issuing a parking ticket.

The Texas lawmakers reasoned that arresting and booking a marijuana offender costs about $2,000 and removes a cop from the street for as much as six hours. But ultimately it was the state's overcrowded prisons that forced the legislature to take this small step toward sane marijuana policy.

Even if you love locking up folks for using marijuana and don't give a whit whether it makes society safer or healthier, it doesn't really matter once it becomes unfeasible to do so.

Which is why Webb's timing might be just right for starting a public discussion about our overburdened prison system and reforming marijuana policy.

It's encouraging to hear policymakers wonder out loud whether it makes any sense to lock up nonviolent offenders at the appalling rate we currently do. But if lawmakers are really serious about relieving our overburdened prison system, why not start with the nonviolent non-offenders clogging our prisons: those productive, responsible adults who have done nothing but choose a drug that's safer than alcohol.

Morally and financially – we can no longer afford to ignore this insanity.

Dan Bernath is the Marijuana Policy Project’s assistant director of communications, www.mpp.org. Email him at dbernath@mpp.org.