Gov. Chris Christie made his name as the tough-on-crime top federal prosecutor in New Jersey, a place where peculiar illegal shenanigans are practically a way of life. Case in point: Christie's biggest case as U.S. attorney resulted in the arrest of 44 people for corruption -- including mayors, state representatives, a group of rabbis and a guy who prosecutors said sold human kidneys on the black market.
Christie has attempted to continue this law-and-order approach as governor with initiatives such as disbanding and rebuilding the police force in crime-plagued Camden. But Christie has taken a different approach when it comes to nonviolent drug users. For years, Christie has been advocating treatment over incarceration for offenders who use heroin and prescription drug abuse (though Christie retains his law-and-order mentality when it comes to marijuana). On Friday, he discussed the issue in front of his biggest audience on the topic to date, the Faith and Freedom Coalition's "Road to Majority" conference in Washington, where religious conservatives heard from a number of Republican politicians.
Christie framed his support of treatment rather than incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders as an extension of the "pro-life" agenda. Christie said that being pro-life just doesn't pertain to matters of abortion; it means fighting for a person's life at all stages, no matter how complicated or messy that person's life gets.
"We have tried for 40-plus years for a war on drugs that is wide and broad," Christie said, "and it hasn’t worked. It hasn’t worked. What works is giving those people, nonviolent drug offenders, addicts, the ability to be able to get the tools they need to be able to deal with this disease. I doubt that there is a person in this room who hasn’t had the problem of drug and alcohol addiction touch their family or neighbors."
Over the past few years Christie has expanded drug courts and required treatment for many who are addicted and arrested.
“What we’re dealing with most people here is an addiction, an illness that needs to be treated as such,” Christie said at a 2012 bill signing that established a $2.5 million program to expand drug courts. “And I truly, firmly believe that this will not only be extraordinarily successful in terms of the numbers that it will produce over time, but I also believe that even if it was successful only once, we could claim success because every life is precious.”
Christie is dealing with a full-blown crisis of heroin and prescription drug abuse in New Jersey. According to the state attorney general's office, there were 449 overdose deaths from heroin and morphine -- an opiate that heroin sometimes appears as during an autopsy -- in New Jersey in 2012. The number climbed to 591 in 2012 and reached 380 from January to June 2013.
An 88-page report released by a commission Christie convened to look into the rash of opiate deaths called for a number of changes in the state, including expanding treatment programs and beefing up oversight of doctors who can prescribe powerful painkillers. It said the number of admissions for substance abuse treatment in New Jersey jumped 700 percent in a decade.
Prosecutors in New Jersey are dusting off a little-used law that allows them to hold drug dealers responsible for overdose deaths. Many are instructing detectives to treat all overdoses as crimes and are asking coroners to preserve as much evidence as possible.
Christie signed a so-called "good Samaritan" law last year that provides immunity from arrest for people who call 911 if they are with someone who overdoses while doing drugs. The laws, which at least one-third of states have enacted, and changes in how prosecutors go after drug users are part of a shift away from low-level offenders. In New Jersey the law was pushed heavily by rock star and New Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi, whose daughter overdosed on heroin while away at college. She survived.
New Jersey also made Naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of opiates, available to friends and family members of known drug users. Christie this month announced the expansion of a pilot program that allowed police to carry the drug, which is also known as Narcan.
Some advocates in New Jersey have said they believe Bon Jovi's influence and star power were what changed Christie's mind on the issue. Christie vetoed a similar bill in 2012 because he said it didn't focus enough on drug prevention. Christie said he rethought his position after speaking with Bon Jovi and reading letters from parents whose children died of overdoses.
Christie spoke to the New Jersey Medical Society in May about how he tried to intervene eight years ago with a close friend who was addicted to prescription drugs. The friend recently died "alone, in a hotel room in West Orange, N.J., with an empty bottle of Percocet on his nightstand ... and an empty quart of vodka."
Christie, who is trying to assert his conservative bona fides ahead of a potential 2016 presidential run, is one of, if not the only, high-profile Republican to cast the epidemic of prescription drugs and heroin abuse as an issue that pro-life conservatives should notice and work to reverse.
And the time to appeal to Republicans may be now. According to a survey released in April by the Pew Research Center, an overwhelming majority of Americans believe that the government's approach to drug policy should focus on treatment.
Fifty-one percent of Republicans who participated in the Pew survey said the government should focus more on treatment than prison time for people who use drugs such as heroin or cocaine.
Christie said in the April speech that he doesn't believe drug treatment is a partisan issue. "I know as many drug addicted Republicans as I know drug addicted Democrats," Christie said.
But politically right now, Christie's views on treatment and the failure of the drug war are more aligned with libertarian-leaning Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has said that the United States has gone "overboard" with applying harsh drug laws to low-level, nonviolent offenders, and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who has called the drug war a failure. (Booker, the former mayor of Newark, N.J., and Christie often touted their close bipartisan working relationship in Jersey.)
But there is one major place where Christie, Booker and Paul disagree: marijuana. While Booker and Paul have called for the decriminalization of marijuana, Christie is adamant that it should remain illegal. He is very much against New Jersey's medical marijuana program, which the legislature passed in 2009 and Christie's predecessor signed during his waning days in office. New Jersey's program suffers from low enrollment and what many say are a number of regulatory hurdles put in place by Christie to make opening a dispensary difficult. Christie earlier this month called medical marijuana programs across the nation "a front for legalization."
"I am not going to allow de facto legalization of marijuana in this state or regular legalization of marijuana in this state by statute," Christie said on his monthly "Ask the Governor" radio show in June. It's not going to happen on my watch."
Another issue Christie must confront is the difficulty of accessing substance abuse treatment in New Jersey and around the country. In New Jersey, parents tell stories of having to send their children to Florida or other places for substance abuse treatment because there is not room at facilities in New Jersey and because insurance puts a cap on the number of days for which it will pay for treatment. Nationwide, only 2.5 million of the 23.1 million people who needed treatment for drug or alcohol abuse actually received it, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration.