SOME ARGUE, and I'm one of them, that we're entering a new progressive era like the one from 1900 to 1920 that followed the excesses of the robber barons and the Gilded Age.

That period saw the rise of a school of philosophy called Pragmatism. The point was to move beyond ideology and pure power, and look out the window to see how people actually lived their lives and to figure out practical ways to make it all work better.

Recently, I heard Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, give a speech at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, an organization that works to make sense of the absurdities of our state's prison system.

Nadelmann, a pragmatist of the first order, ran down the problems with our failed drug war, especially the ridiculous prohibition of marijuana.

He spoke of the ultimate nonsensical reality of teens in school saying it's easier for them to obtain marijuana than to obtain alcohol. The drug war, it seems, actually makes it easier for kids to get pot, while the legal regulation of liquor makes obtaining that substance more difficult.

In some cases, parents who want dope get their kids to buy it for them. Or kids are toking on a joint in their bedroom with a wet bath towel under the door, while across the hall their parents are hitting on a pipe with another wet towel under their door.

Nadelmann says that the issue of marijuana in America has suddenly collided with our economic woes, and the result is the opening of a pragmatic window. People are looking out that window and realizing marijuana is not the evil scourge it's been made out to be.

We've gotten to the point that, in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is publicly encouraging open discussion of marijuana legalization. This is happening for two very good reasons: Northern California is the pot-growing capital of America, and the state is going bankrupt in the economic downturn. As was the case when Prohibition was ended in 1933, the fact that people are doing the stuff anyway makes the notion of legalizing it, regulating it and taxing it look pretty darn good.

There's nothing like an economic disaster to focus the mind to change an epic bad situation - so could it be that dope can actually save California?

Nadelmann says the marijuana issue is like gay rights in the '70s when people like Harvey Milk in San Francisco urged gay people to make themselves known as responsible citizens and political actors. So he urges people to come out and declare their pot use. President Obama has done it, as have other politicians wanting to get beyond the stupidity of "but I didn't inhale."

OK . . . I like to smoke pot now and then with friends.

To me, it's an innocuous substance, less dangerous than alcohol, but something that can be abused, especially by kids. If I smoke too much, I get slow and sluggish in the mind. If I'm high and try to read, I find myself reading the same paragraph six or seven times. It's impossible.

So I responsibly self-manage, and don't keep it in the house, lest I get the munchies late at night and gain 15 pounds. I do it sparingly and responsibly - and it's a positive in my life.

As citizens of a free society, Nadelmann says, we should have the right to put into our bodies whatever we wish. Sales can and should be regulated, especially in relation to kids.

Production and sales should be taxed heavily. If you use a substance and harm others by, say, driving a car irresponsibly, you should suffer the consequences.

But all we see and hear, Nadelmann points out, is drug-war propaganda. We don't hear about citizens who use drugs and maintain a responsible life.

And they're out there. For obvious reasons, they don't want to talk to reporters. So, we only hear about drug abusers on skid row and in prison.

AT THIS time of pragmatic social reckoning, we need to learn to accept reality and to create a drug regulation structure that actually makes sense rather than continue as we have for too long to try to sustain something that's unsustainable.

Not only could we raise tax revenues at a time we desperately need them, we would unburden our police departments, courts and prisons of a massive and costly problem that could better be dealt with as a social and medical issue.

All it takes is courage from our leaders. *

John Grant, a writer/photographer living in Plymouth Meeting, is a Vietnam veteran and a member of Veterans for Peace.