Last Tuesday, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey addressed a large crowd at New Hope Baptist Church in Newark. The topic? Helping people struggling with drug addiction.
Governor Christie holds some progressive views on addiction. He consistently speaks of it as a medical condition, not a moral failing. He strongly supports treatment over incarceration for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders... and yet he is strongly opposed to any sort of decriminalization for these offenders.
While these positions seem at odds, Governor Christie is not alone in holding conflicting views about people struggling with substance abuse. In different ways, Americans in general demonstrate deep ambivalence. According to this Pew Survey, 67 percent of Americans believe our government's drug policy should focus more on providing treatment than prosecuting drug users. That's a healthy majority. At the same time, citizens are wary of insurance, housing, and employment policies meant to help people with a drug problem -- 43 percent are even opposed to giving them the same health insurance benefits as the general public, according to new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research. Unlike Governor Christie, "the American public is more likely to think of addiction as a moral failing than a medical condition," says study leader Colleen L. Barry, PhD, MPP, an associate professor in the school's Department of Health Policy and Management. Why is that? "The feeling is that the addict is a bad or weak person, especially because much drug use is illegal," Dr. Barry concludes. In other words, breaking the law is bad; therefore, people who break the law by using drugs must be bad.
This line of thinking is a major obstacle to the goal of getting nonviolent drug offenders into evidence-based treatment, where they can learn to manage their disease and become productive citizens, rather than just sending them to prison, where, without treatment, they may learn only to become hardened criminals.
As I've said before, I think Governor Christie has shown visionary leadership on many fronts. His talk last Tuesday was moving, convincing, and no-nonsense in typical Christie fashion. His account of how his positions on drug addiction are rooted in his own personal experience with a friend who died of an overdose gave his listeners and followers a lot to think about, and hopefully planted the seed that addiction is a chronic disease rather than a sign of bad character. We should be grateful to him for that, and for helping to make addiction in general a topic to talk about as we head into the 2016 Presidential race.
But I also can't help but think that, for all the good he's done on charting the course of our national conversation on addiction, Governor Christie missed a golden opportunity to take it to the next level. If he had used Tuesday's event to support decriminalization, he could have shown the American public that he truly believes that individuals struggling with substance abuse are sick people who need treatment rather than criminals who require punishment. By examining the inconsistencies in his own stance, he could have inspired others to reevaluate theirs. Instead, his uncompromising support for criminalization in all cases reinforced the damaging viewpoint that addiction really is a moral failing -- regardless of his words to the contrary.
The fact that Governor Christie's contradictory views mirror Americans' ambivalence is not surprising; voters generally elect people who represent their own perspectives. But a visionary leader shows his constituents not only who they are, but also who they can become. Governor Christie has been this kind of leader in the past. Let's hope that the next time he speaks about addiction, he shows that he still is.