The 43rd anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs was a confusing time for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has been on a subtle-but-consistent campaign to position himself as a leader, stationed on the front lines, of reforming drug policy in America.
In one breath, he gave credibility to one of the drug war’s enduring myths, and in the next, he called it an “abject failure.” And Christie’s incoherence on the issue seems emblematic of the right-wing dilemma at hand: reforming drug policy is seemingly inevitable, and interwoven with prison reform--an issue conservatives are owning. But it’s still too far out an idea to expect the whole party to fall in line.
On Tuesday, Christie paid a visit to a shelter in Trenton to unveil an initiative which will allow law enforcement across the state to carry naloxone, a drug capable of reversing the symptoms of a heroin or opiate overdose. The gov’s announcement came after a pilot program launched in April proved a success, preventing over forty overdoses in Monmouth and Ocean counties, according to officials.
“We have the ability to prevent this type of tragedy and help save lives,” Christie said, before riffing on the general “failure” of the War on Drugs. But less than 24 hours earlier, Christie delivered a message about the Garden State’s collapsing medical marijuana program that could be interpreted as an endorsement of the War on Drugs.
On Monday evening, Christie appeared on his monthly radio program. Seated in front of the mic, headphones engulfing his head and reading glasses resting professorially on the tip of nose, he addressed criticism of his medical marijuana program, which is suffering from a debilitatingly low participation rate that some say is due to high costs and too much red tape.
"What there is a huge demand for is marijuana, not medical marijuana," Christie snapped, his arms folded defensively. "This program and all these other programs are, in my mind, a front for legalization—unless you have a strong governor and a strong administration that says, 'oh, medical marijuana? Absolutely, we're going to make it a medically-based program.'" His tone turned sarcastic and his eyebrows raised. "No demand there—very little."
Christie’s relationship with the issue of drug policy reform dates back to his days as a member of the county Freeholder board (every county in the Garden State has such a board, which operate sort of like city councils) in leafy Morris in the mid-1990s. The future gov was assigned to oversee the Department of Human Services, which led him to an inpatient adolescent treatment facility, Daytop Village, located in Mendham, where he lived with his young family.
To anecdotally burnish his drug policy credentials, Christie often references the success story of Chris Hanlon, who, as a 16-year-old drug addict, was rehabilitated at Daytop. After graduating from high school, college, law school, and passing the bar, Christie hired him as a summer intern in the U.S. Attorney’s office.
When Christie was honored by Daytop in 2013, Hanlon publicly thanked him. TheStar-Ledger reported, “Christie, who embraced Hanlon with tears in his eyes,” said, “It was clear I wasn’t the one doing him a favor. He was doing me one. This young man will show others what overcoming challenges is all about.”
During his 2014 State of the State address, Christie trotted Hanlon out to the State House, bellowing that he was proof "that life is salvageable, if we reach out and give [addicts] the tools they need to help themselves…I believe we can do more to help give people a second chance."
But Christie’s actual history with drug policy is a less sunny tale.
On his final day in office, departing Democratic Governor Jon Corzine signed New Jersey’s medical marijuana bill (The Compassionate Care Act) into law. The move, qualifying those with certain debilitating conditions to apply for a medical marijuana license, was cut up by Christie, who said the bill “passed with no type of allowances for that type of safety and security,” and was “dumped in our laps at 3 o’clock in the morning.”
To safeguard his constituents from the half-baked legislation, Christie drew up a dispensary-approval process so strict that three years later, only one had overcome the economic and legal hurdles necessary to open. Today, there are just five. And with only 296 of New Jersey’s 21,000 licensed physicians able to write prescriptions, the meager 2,500 patients that make up the market have left it on the verge of collapse.
Just last week, the CEO of the only medical-marijuana dispensary in South Jersey, Bill Thomas, quit, claiming that three years of work in the failing industry felt like charity. The Compassionate Care Foundation, which Thomas opened in October 2013, is currently serving only 600 patients—less than half of the 2,000 it needed to just break even.
According to Thomas, the issue is not the lack of demand for medical marijuana, but the lack of doctors with the power to prescribe it to their patients. “Is there really no demand, or is it so hard to get access that it is easier to buy it from the high school kid down the street?” Thomas asked the Star-Ledger.
Christie administration officials themselves reportedly modeled the program after New Mexico’s--but one key difference is that in New Mexico, the names of doctors are not disclosed on the program’s website as they are in New Jersey. Democratic Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (who Christie once famously referred to as “numb nuts”) claims the public listing of the doctor’s names deters some from becoming involved with the program.
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