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Christie Calls for Action on Addiction Recovery at Candlelight Vigil

Public opinion of the governor’s performance is at a historic low, but he still gets high marks from those working to end drug addiction in New Jersey

christie candlelight
Credit: Tim Larsen/Governor's Office
Gov. Chris Christie addressed the candlelight vigil at the State House in Trenton on Wednesday.

Gov. Chris Christie closed out the year with a candlelight vigil to support the addiction recovery community, a cause that has become a particular focus of his policy agenda — and one that continues to bring him praise, even as public opinion of his performance in general has soured.

Christie joined former Gov. Jim McGreevey, Pastor Joe Carter of the New Hope Baptist Church, the church’s choir, state officials, and others on the steps of the State House at dusk on Wednesday, the shortest day of the year, to honor addiction survivors and those who work with recovering drug users. The governor framed the event as a “call to action” to both eliminate the stigma that still surrounds the disease of addiction and to further galvanize public officials, treatment professionals, advocates, and survivors to work together to help those who are suffering.

The event comes just days after Christie teamed up with Carter to record a radio ad urging those in need to dial 2-1-1 to connect with help 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The NJ 2-1-1 program, a state partnership with the United Way, also includes a a chat feature available during weekdays.

christie candlelight
Credit: Tim Larsen/Governor's Office
Supporters of addiction recovery efforts gathered at a candlelight vigil at the State House in Trenton on Wednesday.

“We all must face the truth. Addiction is not a moral failing. It is a disease — a disease that can be treated,” Christie said in the ad. “And in this holiday season, addiction is damaging families all across the country.”

Carter urged anyone struggling with addiction to call the free, confidential service. “You are not alone in your struggle,” he said.

For years, Christie has prioritized efforts to reduce and treat substance use disorder, often sharing personal accounts of how it has touched his family directly and underscoring how the disease cuts across racial and social lines to impact hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents. In 2014, he convened a summit and task force — featuring Carter and McGreevey, among others — that brought together professionals, advocates, survivors, and others to find effective ways to address the issue.

And while a recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed three out of four Garden State residents disapprove of the job he is doing as governor — and lawmakers are increasingly unwilling to support his agenda — Christie has continued to receive praise from those in the addiction and recovery community for his commitment.

A first-ever report from the U.S. Surgeon General found one in seven Americans are impacted by drug addiction, but only 10 percent get the help they need and tens of thousands die from opiate use disorders each year. Parts of New Jersey have been particularly hard hit; the state ranks 26th nationwide for drug deaths per capita. Some 28,000 people in the state sought treatment in 2015 and more than 1,200 were lost to overdoses, according to federal officials.

To address these problems, Christie has worked with the task force to improve access to drug treatment for those in the criminal justice system, reduce deadly overdoses by expanding the use of Narcan — an antidote to opiates — and connect addicts with recovery programs. Over the past year, he has also beefed up systems designed to reduce the spread of opiates, expanded programs to increase the chances of successful recovery, and invested in harm-reduction programs like needle-exchange. Several of these are seen as national models of success.

However, not all of Christie’s efforts have been uniformly embraced. Many in the addiction community welcomed his pledge to add $127 million in new funding to the FY2017 budget (more than $100 million from federal sources) to improve notoriously low payment rates for healthcare providers that work with drug users. But many of those providers have balked at the accompanying regulatory changes, insisting they will be left with budget holes — which threatens care for tens of thousands of vulnerable residents with mental illness and addiction issues.

Other changes the governor implemented this year include:

  • In February, Christie outlined efforts to fund many programs to combat drug addiction in his annual budget message. One project he highlighted, a plan to convert a recently closed 696-bed prison to a drug treatment program for inmates, was slated to open in 2017 — but there has been little public discussion of it since. This would build on earlier initiatives to address the high rates of substance use disorders in prisons, including a drug-court program Christie launched in 2013 that seeks to divert non-violent offenders to treatment, instead of jail.

  • In April, the governor expanded the state’s prescription-monitoring program to link with the system in New York; the interactive database is already connected with those in Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Virginia, Minnesota and South Carolina. The system enables doctors to track opiate use and reduce “doctor shopping” among patients.

  • In August Christie signed a bill to expand the state’s successful needle-exchange program beyond the five cities where it now operates. He also pledged $200,000 for the work, the first commitment of state funds since it started more than a decade ago.

  • In September the governor issued an emergency order designed to help law enforcement crack down on “knock-off,” or clones, of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. Christie was joined by McGreevey at this event.

  • At that same event in September, Christie announced he had expanded the state’s Recovery Coach program, which links addicts trained in recovery with recent overdose victims in an attempt to help the latter become healthier, and possibly into recovery. The program is now at work in half the counties in New Jersey.

  • In November Christie signed a law that ensures residents who did prison time for non-violent, personal drug crimes still have access to emergency cash and other welfare benefit programs. Federal law restricts access to these benefits for those convicted of drug crimes; New Jersey joined more than two dozen states that have passed laws to get around this ban.

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