Why has the problem of substance abuse and drug addiction in New Jersey become one of the prime healthcare issues of Gov. Chris Christie’s second term?
The number of deaths from drug overdoses now tops motor-vehicle crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in New Jersey.
In addition, the issue is one that Christie connects to on a personal level – and which has potential political benefits for him, as well.
Christie has addressed substance abuse twice this month, announcing the creation of a new task force that will advise the governor on the issue and the allocation of previously budgeted anti-addiction funds.
Christie speaks passionately on the issue, citing his experience serving as a board member of the Daytop Village treatment facility and mourning the overdose death of a longtime friend.
In his first five years in office, Christie signed bills that mandated drug court appearances for nonviolent, drug-addicted offenders, providing treatment as an alternative to prison; provided legal immunity to those who make emergency calls or provide a heroin antidote to overdose victims, and allowed drug-treatment programs in prisons and jails to be licensed. He’s also supported broader use and training for the heroin antidote naloxone and the integration of addiction treatment with job training.
Christie will have significant opportunities to further advance this record in the coming months, depending on whether he and legislators reach agreement on a wide-ranging 21-bill package aimed at reducing the number of overdose deaths and improving addiction prevention, treatment and recovery programs.
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said Christie’s passion for the issue has proven to be beneficial during a sometimes-rocky start to his second term — and at a time when building a reputation in New Jersey for his handling of substance abuse-related issues could have national ramifications.
“Yes, there is political benefit for the governor’s presidential ambition, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t always been committed to this,” Dworkin said. “He’s been talking about drug courts and addiction supports for a number of years.”
Dworkin said the governor’s renewed focus on the issue this fall isn’t coincidental.
“The Christie administration has been thrown off its game since its massive victory in November,” he said. “It’s not even a year since he won with 60 percent of the vote, but between Bridgegate and budget shortfalls, a lot of the second-term agenda has been struggling to gain momentum.”
Addiction-prevention and treatment programs have moved to the forefront as a policy area in which there is room for both executive action and legislative agreement.
“This seems to be the first issue that has moved to the top of his agenda” and gained traction recently, Dworkin said. Not only can Christie build on his record, “but there’s obviously a political benefit in the here-and-now because he’s getting something done.”
Christie’s charged the Facing Addiction Task Force with developing strategies to reduce the stigma associated with substance abuse and addiction; reviewing treatment services and recommending ways to strengthen the system, and developing prevention strategies.
Task force member former Gov. James E. McGreevey said Christie has made fighting drug addiction and substance abuse a centerpiece of his administration. McGreevey is now the executive director of the Jersey City Employment & Training Program, and has worked with female inmates seeking counseling and treatment at Integrity House, a program affiliated with the Hudson County Correctional Center.
While Christie’s approach to drug abuse is a departure from traditional, criminal-justice-centered strategies, McGreevey said New Jersey has a history of governors from both parties focusing on prevention and treatment programs. He said that only a small fraction of addicted prisoners receive treatment, but Christie “is changing that equation.”
McGreevey said Christie has made clear that the task force will be “digging into the weeds, digging into the mud and developing a blue print” that will shape his administration’s actions. McGreevey said the fact that Christie named six of his cabinet members to the 12-person task force “demonstrates his resolve.”
The former governor added that both treatment providers and legislators know there is an opportunity for action. The scope of the problem, cutting across geographical, economic and ethnic lines, has drawn everyone’s attention, he noted.
“Everyone comes to the table with his or her own priorities, but now there’s a legislative table to attend to,” McGreevey said. “In an era of diminished resources, to place a primary focus upon addiction has been a necessary and welcome occasion.”
Christie’s decision to announce more than $10 million in anti-addiction spending may have been more symbolic than substantive, since the money had already been budgeted.
The announcement was made at the Center for Great Expectations in Somerset, which operates a program that keeps families together while mothers with young children receive drug treatment. Center Executive Director Peg Wright said program participants were impressed with Christie’s interest when he visited them.
“He was extraordinarily affirming, which made a huge impact on the clients we serve,” she said.
While the center didn’t receive any of the $10 million in state funding, the program is similar to one being expanded into South Jersey with some of that money.