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Drug War Challenged On Its 40th Anniversary

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June 17th marks 40 years since President Richard Nixon declared a "War on Drugs." Today, drug policy represents one of the most contested issues in America and Mexico.

— While the Vietnam War raged and the U.S. economy struggled with inflation and unemployment, President Nixon coined one of his most famous phrases.

“This is one area where we cannot have budget cuts," said Nixon. "Because we must wage what I have called total war against ‘public enemy number one’ in the United States—the problem of dangerous drugs.”

Four decades later, the War on Drugs has cost the states and federal government an estimated $1 trillion. Critics say it's a waste. The war, they say, has few success stories relative to its enormous expense.

In 2010 a Gallup poll revealed that 46 percent of Americans now support legalizing drugs, as compared to just 36 percent just five years ago.

"It's very rare to see public opinion change on an important social issue like that so quickly," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Speaking to reporters Thursday in Washington, Nadelmann argued that the human and financial cost of drug-related violence in Mexico is a top reason for shifting public opinion.

But at the Obama White House, drug legalization continues to be dismissed as simplistic.

"Drug cartels don't just make money off of drugs," said Office of National Drug Control Policy spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre. He added that drug cartels also make money off of human trafficking, extortion, and kidnapping. "It's disingenuous to make the claim that if you just legalize marijuana, somehow you'll have cartel members give up and start working for Microsoft or Coca-Cola."

But according to Lemaitre, the government has learned some lessons in the last four decades. Number one on that list, is treating drugs as a public health problem--instead of a criminal problem.

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