When Governor Christie took office in 2010, it was the first time that NJ had a Republican Governor since Governor Whitman resigned in 2001 in order to head up the EPA under President Bush. Christie had been the US Attorney for NJ, so I was not expecting much out of him in the areas that I have the most expertise in: education, criminal justice, and mental health and addiction treatment.
Early on, there were promising signs. In 2011, Eric Arauz and I were named to the Governor’s Council on Drug Abuse and Alcoholism. We were told that Christie had once served on the Board of Directors for Daytop Mendham, an adolescent in-patient treatment facility in Morris County. Apparently a young man who had graduated from Daytop had moved Christie with his story of addiction to crack and how he attended college and then law school in recovery. In 2012, the GCADA put together a Task Force to investigate the heroin and opiate epidemic (after a lot of political nonsense and delay, our report was released in March of 2014).
In July, 2012, Governor Christie signed a bill into law that expanded the NJ Drug Courts. It costs $55,000 to incarcerate someone in NJ but only $12,000 to put them on drug court and give them treatment. Treatment is better than punishment, and even if you don’t agree with that statement, it comes in at about 22% the cost. Even though I disagreed with the Governor on a number of issues, I was thrilled that he had taken action on addiction treatment. It was helpful that he was a Republican and a former US Attorney; if a Democrat had pushed the Drug Court expansion she would have been viewed as a bleeding heart liberal and soft on crime. Christie could do it and not have to deal with much political or public backlash.
After a few months, I heard rumblings that even though Christie had signed the bill, he hadn’t provided actual funding for it. I was told that it was an old political trick: publicly supporting something and then not funding it. I was getting an interesting education in Trenton. I was discouraged, but I hoped that the Governor hadn’t just funded it yet, and that once he addressed the state’s budgetary issues he would pour money into prevention, treatment and recovery support services.
The first sign of real trouble appeared in the fall of 2012, when Christie vetoed the Good Samaritan Bill, which would have helped prevent a number of overdose deaths. He vetoed it despite the impassioned pleas of hundreds of parents of kids who had died from overdosing (in 70% of overdose deaths, the evidence at the scene shows that people were not alone when they died, but no one called for fear of getting into trouble). Policy makers and those parents were distraught and sought to create a groundswell at the local level. Websites were made, petitions signed and municipalities passed proclamations in support of the Good Samaritan Bill. Christie refused to budge. Then, Jon Bon Jovi’s daughter overdosed at Hamilton College in upstate New York. Because New York had already passed their Good Samaritan Law, Ms. Bon Jovi did not die. Advocates called on Jon Bon Jovi, who agreed to reach out to the Governor. On May 2, 2013, Governor Christie announced that he had “changed my mind” and signed the Overdose Prevention Act.
My father is an Eisenhower Republican and my mother has usually voted for Republicans. I tend to like moderate Republicans (Governor Tom Kean, President Nixon, President Ford, John McCain circa 2000), but they are a highly endangered species. I hadn’t voted for a major Republican candidate in well over a decade, but decided to cast my vote for Governor Christie in the fall of 2013. He talked a good talk about addiction. I was hoping that he would walk it.
This spring, he spoke before a group of doctors and urged them to use the state’s PMP. But he wouldn’t require doctors to use it, despite the fact that our Task Force report suggested it (at the behest of his Attorney General’s office) and that nine other states had mandatory PMP’s. A few days later, Christie met with a number of ex-offenders whose lives had been improved by going to college. Studies show that providing a college education reduces recidivism by more than 50% and therefore, makes a tremendous amount of economic sense. Christie said that it was a great idea but that he would not publicly fund it (I don’t hold this against him…it is extremely difficult for a politician to back this with public funds). The Governor had developed a new playbook that had him make appearances, talk about how he cared about the issue, that he was rooting for people and then he would leave without any promise of making any real change or providing funding.
Despite this, I was (for the most part) pleased with his stance on marijuana. I am very much opposed to outright legalization and I’m appalled at how Democratic officials are supporting legalization without a better understanding of the issues.
Last week, Senator Joe Vitale of Woodbridge introduced 21 new bills to tackle the heroin and opiate epidemic. Some highlights:
(1) mandate the PMP
(2) improve middle and high school curriculums to address prescription drug abuse
(3) insurance reform
(4) create treatment programs inside of NJ prisons
(5) improve oversight of treatment programs to ensure better service
(6) require all NJ colleges to have Recovery Housing programs
These are good ideas. Passing and funding them can go a long way to addressing the Heroin epidemic in NJ, as well as a improving substance abuse prevention and treatment. Governor Christie has deservedly earned a lot of praise for his stance on these issues. He talks a good talk and says all the right things. He connects with people and claims to care. But when it comes time to pass laws and fund programs, he comes up lacking. Over and over.
This is his moment. I hope he chooses wisely. Governor Christie: please walk your big talk.