Imagine a nightmare in which terrorists brutally murder 40,000 people in just five years. Now imagine that their base of operations is not across the globe, but directly adjacent to the United States. No doubt, hearing of such a thing, many of my conservative colleagues would be demanding a massive mobilization against the latest evils of Islamofacism.

But the real-life killers I have in mind, who revel in decapitating their victims (Al Capone's got nothing on these guys), aren't Muslim fanatics. They're narco-terrorists exploiting Mexico's failed war on drugs.

Most of the latest carnage appears to have been spearheaded by the Los Zetos gang, a group of former Mexican military men who simultaneously commit heinous acts of violence while building roads, schools and clinics for the impoverished. Sound familiar? It should -- because whether you're talking about the Taliban or Mexican drug cartels, both employ similar tactics that result when governments grant them de facto monopoly status in the distribution of illicit drugs. And the sad irony is that the exorbitant black-market profits used to finance their operations are a result of prohibition itself.

So far, the international response to Mexico's agony has been feckless at best, dangerous at worst. In America, where the appetite for illegal substances shows no signs of abating, the violence is rapidly spilling into the Southwest. Yet Washington continues to subsidize Mexican President Felipe Calderon's quixotic crackdown while also concocting inscrutable schemes to track the villains. Operation Fast and Furious had the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sitting by as straw buyers bought AK-47s for rival gangs south of the border. Because no one in the Obama administration can come up with a suitable explanation, it now looks more like a cynical ploy to shift blame for the escalating violence in Mexico to U.S. gun dealers.

Regardless, America's entrenched drug warriors remain undeterred. They simply refuse to recognize that the state isn't very good at keeping adults from "abusing their freedom" by doing foolish things. Of course, decriminalizing drugs is no panacea, and shouldn't be seen as such. But it's worth recalling that the very same temperance movement that gave us the 18th Amendment and a nationwide ban on distilled spirits eventually led the effort to repeal it. At some point, we need to ask whether incarcerating first and asking questions second is the most effective response for nonviolent drug offenders.

Perhaps it's finally begun.

Nearly 80 years after the end of alcohol prohibition, the Global Commission on Drug Policy declared the war on drugs a failure with "devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world." Most of the deleterious effects reside in urban America, where young people find it much more lucrative to deal than to learn a trade. For all of the problems associated with alcohol, and there are many, you simply don't see gangs shooting one another (and innocent bystanders) over a six-pack of Bud.

The commission, including such diverse notables as George Schultz, Paul Volcker and the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Columbia, notes that after 40 years of failing to stem the flow of narcotics, it's high time (pardon the pun) for a "paradigm shift" in global policy. The United States alone has spent $1 trillion on narcotics enforcement over the last 40 years, and Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimates the total budgetary impact to state and federal governments at around $88 billion per year, including lost tax revenue.

Even current U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske admitted that interdiction "in the grand scheme ... has not been successful."

Not long before they died, conservative stalwarts William F. Buckley Jr. and Milton Friedman came to the conclusion that perhaps the most important public policy change the United States could undertake would be to end the second failed experiment in prohibition. And while no serious observer is advocating a rash repeal of drug laws overnight, U.S. Reps. Ron Paul and Barney Frank have introduced legislation that would allow the "laboratories of democracy" known as the states to develop their own rules on the use of marijuana within their borders.

That might be a good place to start.

Jason Lewis is a nationally syndicated talk-show host based in Minneapolis-St. Paul and is the author of "Power Divided is Power Checked: The Argument for States' Rights" from Bascom Hill Publishing. He can be heard locally from 5 to 8 p.m. weeknights on KTLK Radio, 100.3-FM.