Guest Commentaries

Shewmake: We've tried the war-on-drugs strategy — it didn't work

Sefzik 'narrowly focused' on policing, incarceration
November 2, 2022 at 5:00 a.m.

By State Rep. Sharon Shewmake

Last week my opponent [Simon Sefzik] wrote an op-ed in the Cascadia Daily News (CDN, Oct. 26, 2022) where he once again spent his time attacking me, failing to put forward a vision of his own. I know we are all tired of negativity, so here is the truth: I have always supported working people whether it’s carpenters, laborers, nurses, fishermen, small-business owners, restaurant workers, therapists, teachers, firefighters or law enforcement. I have never demonized working people, because true safety, true prosperity, true stability is always won by bringing people together, not by divisive campaign tricks. 

My opponent is narrowly focused on policing and incarceration. These are important tools, but they are not the only tools. Public safety includes stronger gun-safety laws, access to behavioral health services, a well-functioning justice system that is swift, fair and certain, and an economy that works for everyone. When someone has a good job and an affordable community, they don’t need to turn to crime. When we have connections to one another, we are less likely to self-soothe using drugs and alcohol or engage in violence.

It’s not just me who says this: It’s backed up by years of research finding that police officers reduce crime, and so do sensible gun laws, youth programs and even preschool teachers. We are still recovering from a deadly and traumatic pandemic, why would we not use all these tools? 

As your state representative, I have a record of supporting common-sense gun regulations, penalties for catalytic converter theft and resale, and lowering taxes on working people. In the last budget, I voted for additional training for law enforcement and for increasing the pay for the Washington State Patrol. I have secured funding for local projects like the Crisis Triage Center, The Way Station, Eagle Haven, rural fire stations, affordable housing, early learning, youth programs and other projects that build public safety. As your senator, I’ll continue to bring home the funding we need to build needed behavioral health treatment facilities, increase efficiency in our courts and help get more people into housing. 

What will I not do? I won’t play politics with public safety and I do not share Sefzik's enthusiasm for a return to the war on drugs. 

The war on drugs cost our nation over a trillion dollars with little to show for it. We criminalized addiction, a treatable brain disease, which filled our prisons with drug users and fueled a violent drug trade in our communities. When nonviolent drug users left prison, they had a felony on their record, which meant they struggled to get a job, an apartment or even visit their kids at school. We’ve tried Sefzik's strategy; it didn’t work.

There’s a better way that does not turn a blind eye to dangerous drug abuse. We should offer wrap-around treatment services and compel people who are a danger to themselves or others to use treatment. I’ve also had family members who struggled with addiction; forcing them into treatment can be the most compassionate thing to do. 

How you force someone into treatment matters. Civil commitment can save lives and end drug use on our streets. Using a felony conviction for simple possession is simply not necessary unless additional felony crimes have been committed. Even Sefzik acknowledges this and recently suggested we only use the threat of a felony to get people into treatment.

Why would we put laws on the books we do not intend to use? Any parent will tell you: Extreme threats only work until your bluff is called. Recovery is messy, so at some point, we will either have to admit we never intended to use the felony charge or we will have to burden recovered addicts with felony charges that they carry with them for the rest of their lives, even after years of sobriety.  

Like you, I don’t want people to overdose on our streets. I want to prosecute the dealers that sell these drugs. Every addict is someone’s brother, sister, uncle, cousin or child. Civil commitment for addiction is a better process because it doesn’t fill our jails with nonviolent drug users and costs much less than Sefzik’s cruel and costly renewed war on drugs. 

Everyone deserves to be safe. I’ll work to pass legislation to fund treatment and to improve an involuntary option so that people get the help they need. It will pass because I’m honest, I work across the aisle to find common ground, I base my work on data and evidence and I have the real-life experience we need to find pragmatic solutions. 

If you want to read more about my public safety plan, created with input from law enforcement, corrections officers, social workers, public defenders, prosecutors, courts, health care workers and more, you can visit  www.Sharon4Whatcom.com/safety.


Sharon Shewmake of Bellingham, a Western Washington University economist and two-term state representative, is a candidate for State Senate in the 42nd District.

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