Fact Checker: Rick Stewart and the war on drugs

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Introduction

“When I win, I will chase drug war criminals with a vengeance. Most of them are here in DC, stalking the halls of Congress. They’ve wasted 1 trillion dollars and decimated three generations of black Americans. ... If you come to my town I will hunt you down and ship you to The Hague, where they have a special court for scum like you.”

Source of claim: Rick Stewart, the Libertarian candidate for Linn County sheriff, makes the claims in a recent campaign ad appearing in the local TV market.

Analysis

Stewart, 65, who said he spent a brief stint as a Maquoketa police officer before founding Frontier Natural Products Co-op, made an unsuccessful 2014 bid for U.S. Senate. Now he’s challenging incumbent Democrat Sheriff Brian Gardner.

In the ad, Stewart takes aim at lawmakers and the 45-year-old war on drugs, which was declared in 1971 by President Richard Nixon.

His statements are unusual for a candidate for a local office, but we’ll take them one at a time.

When asked by Fact Checker to provide source material for his claims, Stewart sent a lengthy email with a number of reports and sources cited. But he also did his own extrapolations and interpretations, so we’ll look at independent research, too.

The first claim is that the war on drugs has “wasted $1 trillion.”

Putting aside the claim of whether it was wasted, we will focus on the measurable dollar figure.

One report cited by Stewart, released in April by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, states drug legalization would reduce government spending by about $41.3 billion a year.

The report factors in lower government spending on drug enforcement, but also the increased tax revenue that would result from legalizing drugs like marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

In his email, Stewart takes that figure and multiplies the savings by the number of years since the war on drugs began. With additional estimations and adjustments for inflation, Stewart comes to $1 trillion.

Forty-five years at that amount would be around $1.8 trillion in state and federal dollars, without adjusting for inflation, but we can’t assume the cost mentioned in the study would have remained constant.

However, the Associated Press, which analyzed data in 2010 related to the war on drugs, also found the overall cost to be $1 trillion.

In Stewart’s ad, when he says the drug war has “decimated three generations of black Americans,” text appears stating that “40 percent of black families are drug war victims.”

As with the last claim, Stewart provides his methodology, which includes census counts, arrest records and average household size.

It relies on making some assumptions in connecting the number of black people in prison on drug charges to the number of black families in the nation.

So we will look for independent information.

There is ample evidence of racial disparity in the U.S. prison system.

According to a 2016 report from the not-for-profit organization The Sentencing Project, which pulled Bureau of Justice Statistics data, 38 percent of state prisoners are black, compared with 35 percent being white — even though black people make up a smaller portion of the population.

Disparities are pronounced among drug charges. A black individual is four times as likely as a white individual to be arrested on a drug possession charge, the report found.

“From 1995 to 2005, African Americans comprised approximately 13 percent of drug users, but 36 percent of drug arrests and 46 percent of those convicted for drug offenses,” it found.

The U.S. Justice Department reported there were an estimated 539,500 male and female black prisoners — for all crimes, not only drug-related — in state and federal facilities in 2014. The U.S. Census Bureau reported there were 9.9 million black households in the nation that year.

Stewart’s final claim is the warning to drug criminals that “if you come to my town I will hunt you down and ship you to The Hague, where they have a special court for scum like you.”

The Hague is home to the International Court of Justice, the judicial branch of the United Nations. It’s in the Netherlands.

But does a county sheriff have the authority to send an alleged offender to international court? In his reply, Stewart admits no.

“Clearly no legal authority, as should be obvious,” he wrote.

Stewart goes on to explain that anybody has the ability to ask the International Court of Justice to investigate a matter. But by that token, he could take such a request to the court now.

Conclusion

Stewart’s methodology in reaching the first two claims is shaky.

Nonetheless, there is independent support for his statement that $1 trillion has been spent on the war on drugs.

Racial disparities do exist in U.S. prisons and the war on drugs is an often-cited factor. But Fact Checker was not able to corroborate his claim that this has directly impacted 40 percent of the nation’s black families.

And lastly, becoming Linn County sheriff does not give Stewart any more authority to submit a case to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice.

With all those factors in mind, we give Stewart a D for his claims.

Criteria

The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/office holder or a national candidate/office holder about Iowa, or in advertisements that appear in our market. Claims must be independently verifiable. We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.

If you spot a claim you think needs checking, email us at factchecker@thegazette.com.

This Fact Checker was researched and written by Mitchell Schmidt.

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