In the decades since President Richard Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one in the United States,” the nation has spent more than a trillion dollars on the “war on drugs” and arrested 37 million people for nonviolent drug offenses.
Yet the rate of drug use among high school students is almost identical to what it was 40 years ago, and according to the latest report from the Centers for Disease Control, drug overdose rates are up.
So why pour money into a failed system? One factor might just be profit. During the Reagan administration, the government started incentivizing drug arrests by handing out grants to police departments fighting drug crimes. An arrest in a state like Wisconsin could bank a city or county an extra $153.
In 34 years in the Seattle Police Department, Norm Stamper learned about those incentives first hand, and he believes they are “corrupting the system.”
“What we have seen with this drug war are insane numbers of Americans being arrested for nonviolent, very low level drug offenses, in the tens of millions of numbers, and what do we have to show for it?” he asked on Tuesday’s PoliticsNation. He said drugs are more readily available than when Nixon “first declared war against them.”
“Make no mistake, he was really declaring war against his fellow Americans. He was declaring war particularly against young people, poor people, and people of color.”
Stamper takes issue with the prison industry, which has seen major growth due to low level drug offenders, compared to relatively little growth from more violent offenders.
“The prison industrial complex, the law enforcement, drug enforcement industry, the cartels themselves, heavy street traffickers, are deeply invested in the status quo,” Stamper said. “They are very much invested in making sure, by protecting and expanding their drug markets, often times through violent means, that they will continue to reap the enormous, untaxed, obscene profits associated with illicit commerce.”
Producer Jen Mulreany contributed to this report.
Watch the full interview with Stamper below.