From a governor who rarely changes course after stating his views on a bill, Chris Christie’s decision to sign a measure granting immunity to those who aid drug overdose victims was nearly unprecedented.
It took dogged lobbying from the families of residents who died from overdoses, as well as urging from New Jersey First Lady Mary Pat Christie, for the governor to embrace the “Good Samaritan” bill. The effort also received an assist from celebrity rocker Jon Bon Jovi, whose daughter survived an overdose.
The bill () protects both overdose victims and those who are with them from arrest for drug possession. It also offers immunity to those who administer an opioid overdose antidote, naloxone.
Christie had issued a conditional veto of an earlier version of the Good Samaritan law, in which he called for an 18-month study of the issue. He wrote in his veto message that “the proposal fails to consider the existing approaches to deterrence, public safety, prevention of violence, and the many social problems that accompany the rampant proliferation of drug distribution and use.”
As governor, once Christie makes up his mind about legislation, it’s very rare for him to cede ground. Most compromises have risen from cases in which the governor had previously expressed a willingness to reach deals that would keep his core principles intact.
While he said yesterday that he never opposed the idea behind the measure, his sweeping concerns with the earlier bill, combined with the Legislature’s lack of interest in undertaking an 18-month study, appeared to put the bill on a path to oblivion. That is, if it followed the precedents of Christie’s first three years and three months as governor.
But several factors converged to make New Jersey the 12th state -- and the second with a Republican governor -- to enact a Good Samaritan law. Christie signed the measure yesterday at Turning Point, a drug rehab center in Paterson.
It likely helped that the legislation touched on an area where Christie has shown a willingness to reach out to Democrats: the treatment of drug abuse. Christie has championed a drug court to treat nonviolent offenders rather than send them to prison, citing his experience on the board of Daytop Village, a drug rehabilitation facility in Mendham.
He’s also overseen the implementation of a medical marijuana law that he opposed, although advocates have criticized the method and pace of the implementation.
But Christie, a former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, noted that his inclination was to take a hard stance against drug use.
“Understand where I come from and where my staff comes from in terms of our predisposition -- many of us, not all of us, but many of us are former prosecutors. And so the mindset when we’re looking at something like this is to examine it from, ‘What does it do to the prosecutors, who are working hard to try to keep drugs off our streets, try to keep drugs away from our children,’ ” Christie said.
"And so, that’s our disposition. Now, it’s not a wrong disposition, but it’s just one slice of it, and I think that if we made any mistakes on this in the first go-round, it was that we looked at it too heavily from that perspective and didn’t include a lot more perspectives in it, to see how it all balanced out.”
Letters from the family members of overdose victims became essential to Christie’s evolving position, especially those of Blackwood resident Patty DiRenzo, who said her son Salvatore, who died at age 26 in September 2010, could have benefited if the person he was with at the time of his overdose had called 9-1-1.
“They were not just emotional letters, they were very well-informed letters,” Christie said of several letters he received from DiRenzo. “And they were not written out of anger, they were written out of caring. And her letters were never overly critical, but just questioning.”
Christie said he read them while lying in bed at night and passed two of them for his wife Mary Pat to read. The first lady “kept saying to me, ‘You need to do something about this -- you need to figure this out.’ So she played a role as well, in her gentle way.”
The issue of post-overdose arrests gained national attention when Bon Jovi’s 19-year-old daughter Jennifer survived a heroin overdose in upstate New York, only to be arrested for possession. The charges were dropped by prosecutors due to New York’s Good Samaritan law.
In a meeting on another issue, Bon Jovi spoke to Christie about his support for the law. Christie credited the singer with contributing to compromise, adding that of the celebrities he’s worked with, “He doesn’t just look for a sound bite or a clip on the news or just write a check, he actually gets involved.”
Christie said he never let the issue drop and had staff reach out to Sen. Joseph F. Vitale (D-Middlesex), the bill’s primary sponsor, shortly after the conditional veto.
Administration officials, Vitale and other sponsors, as well as the advocacy organization the Drug Policy Alliance “came up with a way where we could trim it back a little bit but keep the essence of what needed to be accomplished,” Christie said.
When the opioid antidote bill arrived on Christie’s desk, officials saw it as an opportunity to revisit the Good Samaritan bill quickly. Christie asked lawmakers to approve a new version of the antidote bill that included essential provisions of the earlier bill.
“This was something that all of us came to understand was very important, and very important to be done quickly, because we’re going to be able to save lives immediately if we do this the right way,” Christie said.
After joking that he had never changed positions “in public,” Christie said it wasn’t the only instance of his position on a bill evolving. “It might be the most notable one of me changing my mind -- but I never was opposed the concept,” Christie said.
Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Paramus) said she was surprised when Christie decided to support the Good Samaritan bill.
“I’d like to think it was the parents, who really pushed and pushed and pushed,” Wagner said.
Vitale, a veteran senator who was credited by Christie with keeping the bill alive, noted that it was unusual for Christie to change positions on a bill, but that using the conditional veto process to forge compromise was a tactic that had been used by previous governors.
Christie’s support is always decisive, noted Ben Dworkin, a political scientist and director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute.
“Until the governor is ready to make that deal, it’s not happening on any number of issues,” Dworkin said. “Sometimes it’s a long negotiation, sometimes it’s a matter of timing. I wouldn’t say this is any kind of flip-flopping or backtracking, the governor has decided that the changes were sufficient and now was the time to sign it. This is a tremendous political skill -- this is not something to be dismissed. Not every governor has the way to dominate the policy process the way that Chris Christie has.”