A video of New Jersey governor and Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie movingly addressing a New Hampshire town hall gathering on the subject of drug addiction has garnered a lot of attention this week, with many surprisingly pleased with his remarks. Christie has set a goal of holding 100 town hall meetings in New Hampshire before Granite State voters hit the polls in the state’s all-important February primary and watching the video makes it easy to understand why. Christie thrives in retail political settings, connecting with voters in a sincere and authentic way.
The subject of this particular video does more than highlight his formidable political skills, however. It also shines a light on a growing national problem—heroin’s resurgence—and offers a model for other politicians on how to talk about the drug problem by advocating effective policies that speak to the genuine suffering of the victims: those gripped by the disease of addition, and their families and friends.
So why, with all the pressing issues facing the nation, was Christie talking about drug policy in the first place? It’s because New Hampshire, the rest of the Northeast, and much of the Midwest are at the leading edge of a heroin epidemic that is growing out of control.
The numbers are startling. Heroin overdose deaths have shot up nearly 350 percent from 2007-2013. From 2011-2013 alone, they nearly doubled. Not surprisingly, the number of individuals reporting current heroin use has also nearly doubled during same 2007-2013 period. With communities in New England particularly hard hit, it is no wonder that the politicians who venture there are being asked how they would tackle the problem.
Many on the political left, including Rachel Maddow, have heralded Christie’s call for “treating people in this country, not jailing them” for what they perceive as taking a new policy path to address America’s drug problem. They believe this because of a well-established, but misinformed view of how our criminal justice system deals with addicts and drug possession offenders: incarcerating them. In reality, only 3.6 percent of all state prison inmates are in jail for drug possession, with most of these having pled down from more serious trafficking charges. This myth—and Christie likely knows it is a myth—is so firmly established as conventional wisdom that Christie must use it as the common-ground premise from which he can contrast himself.
But a glance at Christie’s published policy position on dealing with non-violent drug offenders, particularly addicts, shows that when he talks about “treating people…not jailing them” he is promoting the further expansion of an effective approach law-enforcement has increasingly employed over the past few decades: drug courts. From his campaign’s website:
Focus on Treatment First Through Drug Courts: Governor Christie has championed the use of drug courts in the state of New Jersey, which allow first time, non-violent offenders, the opportunity to get the treatment they need rather than serving jail time. The Governor expanded mandatory drug court for first time non-violent drug offenders across the state, and is calling for the expansion of drug courts to every state.
There are currently over 3,400 drug courts nationwide that operate as the Christie campaign describes. Low-level offenders, including addicts who need help and abusers who are on their way to addiction, are diverted into court-monitored treatment or intervention programs to help them get on the right track. Successful completion brings a clean record and no jail time. More importantly, it results in a life restored.
As Governor Christie’s tragic story of his law school friend who succumbed to a painkiller addiction attests, often the intervention of family and friends is not enough to motivate an addict to change. The legal system, however, has more powerful levers that can be a strong motivator for those who need it.
Those impressed with Christie’s remarks should also take note of what he is not advocating: drug legalization or decriminalization. Christie has long been a foe of legalization, because legalization makes drugs more available and more potent, while undermining the norms against drug use and weakening the incentives for people to overcome denial and seek recovery. Being more treatment-focused with drug offenders does not mean sending a message to users and potential users that drug use is not serious. As the early returns on California’s recent experiment with lessening penalties are demonstrating, reducing the threat of legal consequences to destructive behavior allows many addicts to prolong their disease and avoid getting the help they need.
More available and potent drugs drive addiction, particularly heroin. As heroin’s purity increases, as it has in recent years, it is more appealing to new users as it can be inhaled instead of injected. Potential new users averse to sticking a needle in their arms are more apt to try it in this less-stigmatized form. Most will move on as their use and addiction progresses, however.
To protect against increased potency, our nation must guard against the surging spread of drug supply. We cannot turn our attention away from heroin from Mexico, the production of which jumped to 26 metric tons in 2013. Though not released yet by the White House, initial reports are that the 2014 number could end up being more than 50 percent higher than 2013, resulting in over 40 metric tons that threatened the U.S. last year. More supply of heroin makes it purer, cheaper, and more widely available. Today’s overdose deaths are the brutal result of that surge in supply. Even Hillary Clinton stated at a recent New Hampshire town hall event the need to stop the flow of heroin at its source, perhaps belatedly realizing that her actions as Secretary of State helped make the problem worse.
Governor Christie’s video is gaining wide attention because he rightly taps into our shared desire to show compassion to those suffering from the disease of addiction. It also presents an opportunity for Americans, and the politicians that seek their votes, to forge a bipartisan consensus on effective measures to reduce the drug problem. Christie is a gifted communicator, but the real lessons from his town hall speech come from understanding the effective policy agenda that is the foundation of his rhetoric.