Since the U.S. seems to be losing the war on drugs, is it time for the government to execute an abrupt about-face and make these illicit substances legal?

Incredibly, this bizarre suggestion is getting an attentive hearing in responsible circles, from the U.S. Conference of Mayors to the New York State Legislature. Even a congressional committee has indicated it is willing to hold hearings on the proposal.The argument for legalizing drugs is simple - deceptively simple. By taking the profit out of drug peddling, it is argued that legalization would end gangland violence. Likewise, the argument goes, treating drugs as a health problem rather than a crime is more civilized and humane. Moreover, outlawing drugs supposedly won't work for the same reasons that Prohibition of liquor didn't work either.

What nonsense!

America would have been better off if Prohibition had worked. Prohibition didn't work because it attempted to reverse overnight hundreds of years of behavior.

Drug abuse, however, isn't nearly as long-standing or deeply imbedded. Before the 1960's, the consumption of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin was limited to small parts of the population, usually in big cities. More widespread use is only about two decades old. It's much too soon to throw in the towel.

Just ask Richard Morin, director of polling for The Washington Post. He reports that public support for legalization of marijuana has declined during the past 10 years to the point where only 16 percent favor it. There's even less support for legalizing more powerful drugs.

That sentiment is certainly understandable. Some states have virtually decriminalized the use of marijuana, meaning that possession of a small amount for personal use carries little or no punishment. Instead of helping, Scripps Howard News Service reports, such laws have "produced more marijuana users and increased the number of peddlers."

America should have learned that lesson long ago. Yale professor David Musto recently reminded the country that the U.S. experimented with free cocaine use in the 1880's. The drug was available in cigarettes and inhalants, commercially produced, widely advertised, and on the shelves of every drugstore. The resulting damage to users brought on a public backlash that led to the imposition of legal curbs. Those curbs, in turn, led to a sharp reduction in cocaine use.

This is clearly no time for the government to start saying "yes" to drugs. To legalize them would give young people the impression that drug abuse is acceptable or even harmless when we all know that addictive substances alter the mind and poison the body.

Legalization would be even worse folly at a time when Americans have seen the number of smokers decline 37 percent in a decade in response to new studies showing the damage done by tobacco and repeated campaigns aimed at getting smokers to kick the habit.

Drug abuse can be whipped, too. Let's stop toying with the irresponsible notion of making narcotics available across the counter and get on with the job of cleaning up this poison.