Isn’t it fascinating that the real post-election change — the evolution in status quo thinking — appears to be happening today not in national defense or even economics, but in what would have seemed so improbable up until now: the 72-year debate over marijuana use and the $40 billion War on Drugs?

One can see and feel it everywhere. From the sympathetic conservative commentary following the video exposing gold medalist Michael Phelps engaging a party bong, to recent efforts at making marijuana legal and taxable in order to ease the economic crisis in California (58 percent of West Coast voters seemingly agree). In March, The Economist offered its second treatise on all-out drug legalization in 20 years, and in February, former leaders among the worst narco-states in Latin America — Mexico, Brazil and Colombia — said U.S drug policy was not only failing, but stoking the violence, and released a report calling on governments to refocus policy toward drug treatment and decriminalizing marijuana.

In just two announcements in the last month, President Barack Obama signaled a near seismic shift in the way the federal government approaches cannabis: directing new Attorney General Eric Holder to hold the line on pursuing medical marijuana sellers and users in states with medical marijuana laws, and appointing Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske — who as top cop honored the city’s wishes and approached simple marijuana possession as a low-level crime priority — as the next “Drug Czar.” As a reflection of Obama’s view that the Drug War has largely failed, he removed the czar’s cabinet level designation and has incorporated treatment-over-incarceration tenets in his FY 2010 budget blueprint.

Meanwhile, since Holder’s announcement that his office will not continue Bush-era medical marijuana prosecutions, several states are more confidently pursuing such measures (13 states have already passed medical marijuana provisions in the last 13 years). Marijuana decriminalization is also happening on the state level, like in Massachusetts’ successful ballot referendum last fall.

So it would seem, instead of the deteriorating Mexican border situation snapping public opinion back into lock-step on the War on Drugs, it is creating a space for reasonable voices to question first, whether marijuana prohibition –  which, according to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, Mexican drug cartels get anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of their revenues exploiting — is truly bad for our health as a nation. Second, the debate over the War on Drugs in its entirety, replete with dogged scholars and activists attacking the old arguments for drug prohibition at the very core, has broken wide open in the mainstream for the first time in recent memory.

I cannot think of any better example than when I opened the Sunday paper and found that usually saccharine enforcer of American cultural hegemony, Parade, demanding an answer in bossy bold print, “What’s Wrong With Our Prisons?” written by Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who wonders what kind of country has one in every 31 adults either in prison, jail or on some sort of supervised release.

“Drug offenders, most of them passive users or minor dealers, are swamping our prisons,” writes Webb, a conservative Democrat, decorated Vietnam veteran and former Reagan Navy Secretary, who points out that drug offenders made up 33 percent of the prison population in 2002, that 47.5 percent of all drug arrests in 2007 were for marijuana, and 60 percent of state inmates had “no history of violence or of any significant selling activity.” Though the piece was designed to publicly launch Webb’s Congressional pursuit of reforming the prison system, he also says “I believe that American ingenuity can discover better ways to deal with the problems of drugs and nonviolent criminal behavior while still minimizing violent crime and large-scale gang activity.”

But don’t go breaking out those EZ Widers yet — Obama’s flippant tone last week addressing a popular question about marijuana legalization and its potentially positive impact on the economy, signaled how afraid politicians still are to be seen as “soft on drugs.” His response disappointed more than few, but it was indicative of a man who is treading pragmatically ahead on one of the most radioactive subjects of modern times. He’s clearly not prepared to go any further — at least not yet — than defending states’ rights and a softer drug control agenda. This halfway approach is doomed, many will say, because it still doesn’t address the $320 billion global narco-industry fueled by prohibition — and the $40 billion we spend every year to stem the flow into this country.

More pointedly, AG Holder’s March edict that the federal government will only “go after” those who are in violation of both state and federal law in regards to medical marijuana was widely seen as a victory for advocates, but California activists are now pointing out that the raids have not ceased. The noted raid on a San Francisco dispensary that reportedly had a temporary license with the Department of Public Health  (and therefore seemingly within California law) was supposedly triggered by state tax improprieties. Details of the raid have been sealed.

Reason’s Jacob Sullum wonders whether Holder’s carefully worded order gives wiggle room to agents by allowing them to harass dispensaries over any state or federal law violations, drug-related or not. Others say the law in California is so vague now, that just a “whiff” of pot gives federal agents probable cause to raid dispensaries merely  “suspected” of violating state law.

The real test is what happens to the suspected medical marijuana offenders awaiting trial in California today, who were arrested growing and selling pre-Obama, and whose cases may depend on how justice responds to the administration’s new demands. U.S District Court Judge George Wu has already asked for a delay in the sentencing of Charlie Lynch, who was convicted last summer of violating federal marijuana laws by selling marijuana out of his Morro Bay dispensary, and is facing anywhere from five to 85 years in prison. Wu wants more clarity from the DOJ on how to proceed. A good rundown of the case from Sullum, here.

Lynch’s case symbolizes the legal perversions resulting from dueling state and federal laws — he was operating legally under California law, he even had the blessing of the mayor and town — but the federal jury was not to hear of any of this. He was charged with selling to a batch of minors, but federal law considers anyone under 21 “a minor” (in California, it is under 18). One of these minors was a high school student with bone cancer who had his leg amputated and, accompanied by his parents, was given a prescription for medical marijuana by a Stamford oncologist when all other prescribed pain killers failed. Owen Beck’s full story never made it into the court record. A good profile by Drew Carey, here.

But at least today, the status quo is being openly challenged. An asymmetrical attack on status quo drug policy thinking based on economics, crime, compassion, states’ rights and individual liberty. Meanwhile, public opinion on marijuana seems to be climbing out of the muddy quicksand of Woodstock and Reefer Madness, and to a more rational departure point for thinking about where and how marijuana fits in, and whether legally, it can be treated like post-prohibition alcohol and cigarettes.

Americans are by no means settled on their answer, and there will no doubt be vigorous and reasoned arguments on either side before that happens. On one hand, support for medical marijuana seems to be growing everyday, but on legalizing marijuana altogether, proponents are still in the minority (through the numbers range from 31 percent to 44 percent depending on the poll).

The late William F. Buckley Jr. called for a “genuine republican groundswell” to reform our current drug laws and pointed out in 2004 that it was  “happening, but ever so gradually.” I think he would be pleased to see how much the debate is evolving, that change is no longer “creeping,” but marching ahead.