Habitual use of marijuana may be a dumb thing to do, but really, is it any dumber, or more harmful, than abusing liquor or smoking cancer-causing cigarettes?<WC>

<WC1>The difference, of course, is that while possession of marijuana in small amounts is no more illegal than a traffic infraction, selling it can be a serious crime. And those who sell it and those who commit other crimes to buy it represent a significant portion of those locked in California?s very overcrowded prisons.

Isn?t it time to recognize that the war on this particular recreational drug is an abject failure, costing taxpayers many millions of dollars each year? Wouldn?t it be smarter to legalize marijuana ? which may be the state?s largest single agricultural crop, estimated at $14 billion a year ? and tax its sale to adults much as we do liquor and cigarettes? Yes, says first-term San Francisco Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who on Monday announced introduction of legislation that would do exactly that, flanked by representatives of drug law reform groups.

Legalization of marijuana would save countless millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in law enforcement, court and prison costs each year while pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the state treasury. What?s not to like? ?It is simply nonsensical that California?s largest agricultural industry is completely unregulated and untaxed,? Aaron Smith, policy director for the Marijuana Policy Project California, said in a statement accompanying Ammiano?s announcement. ?With our state in an ongoing fiscal crisis ? and no one believes the new budget is the end of California?s financial woes ? it?s time to bring this major piece of our economy into the light of day.?

This is not exactly a revolutionary step, more like an evolutionary one. The Legislature decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use more than 30 years ago. Our voters have given their blessing to allowing sufferers from certain diseases to use the drug as a pain reliever.

Who would oppose further legalization? Guardians of the public morals, of course, but mostly, those now engaged in the drug wars ? law enforcement organizations and their support lobbies on one side and the marijuana growers themselves on the other.

Legalization would mean a loss of funds for the drug strike teams, the undercover operatives and other police units on one side, thus forcing them to concentrate on real crimes. And legalization would cut into the enormous untaxed profits that the growers now realize, since making it a legal crop would probably reduce prices.

The nation legalized liquor after its failed experiment with prohibition in the 1920s. Bootlegging had become a lucrative trade that established the Mafia as a national crime syndicate, one that expanded into other fields, including drugs, after prohibition ended.

The bottom line is that marijuana should be legalized for the same reason.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. E-mail him at dwalters@sacbee.com.