By John Celock
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) used his seventh State of the State address Tuesday to focus on laying out a plan of addressing drug addiction in the state.
Christie dedicated an hour of the hour and fifteen-minute address to the state Legislature to opioid addiction, an issue that has been a top focus of his in his second term. Christie mixed talked about policy with discussing how drug addiction has hit him personally, including the death of an old friend from prescription drug addiction.
“This is perhaps the single most important issue to every New Jersey family we will have the chance to address while I am governor. During our campaign for president, it was often said that we were the loudest voice discussing this challenge for our nation,” he said. “Now, as I stand here in New Jersey in my final year as governor, I want us to make New Jersey the example for our entire nation on how to compassionately and effectively help families through this personal hell. If we do it right, we will save lives not only in New Jersey, but all across America. Some will call this plan aggressive. I do not believe it is possible to be too aggressive in fighting this epidemic.”
Christie outlined a several point plan to address drug addiction including a $12 million plan to open up beds in Department of Children and Families approved drug treatment centers for 18 and 19 year olds who are not eligible for adult treatment centers. He also said that the state will be setting up a new one stop hotline and website for drug addiction treatment services. He said this will include all the information that families need to address the drug addiction of a loved one.
Christie said that his approach will also target schools with the state Department of Education creating a new curriculum starting in kindergarten to target opioid and heroin addiction. He said the school component will also involved bringing recovering drug addicts into schools around the state to talk about addiction.
“The medicine in mom and dad’s medicine cabinet is not safe for you just because the doctor says it is safe for them,” Christie said in a message to the children of New Jersey.
He also called on state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford), Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Secaucus), Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Westfield) and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) to introduce and pass legislation to prohibit insurance companies from denying the first six months of inpatient or outpatient addiction recovery to anyone who is insured. He challenged the legislative leaders to pass the bill in the next 30 days and pledged to sign the bill when it arrives on his desk.
Christie also said that he wanted the state to change regulations to limit prescription drugs with opiates to be limited to five-day prescriptions in an effort to reduce the amount of the prescription available. He said that if a limit did not have an impact, he would look into having the state attorney general investigating prescription practices in the state.
Christie also said that he would oppose any move to legalize marijuana in the state, citing statistics that show that any exposure to drugs by the age of 13 could lead to a 70 percent chance of drug addiction within seven years. New Jersey Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nick Scutari (D-Linden) has been pushing for marijuana legalization, including citing the increased revenue the move brought to Colorado.
“I hope, I pray that this gives pause to those who advocate the legalization of another illicit drug in our state for tax revenue or by saying it does no harm,” Christie said. “The statistics prove you wrong, dead wrong.”
The speech marks a singular focus on a social service issue for the two-term governor as he enters his final year in office. While drug addiction has been the focus of much of his second term policy agenda, the singular focus on a social issue is a departure from Christie’s early years in the Statehouse, where property tax cuts, pension and benefit reforms and battles with the state teacher’s union dominated his agenda.
The speech also marks Christie’s full time return to Trenton after a three-year period where national politics dominated his agenda and he was frequently absent from the state. Christie chaired the Republican Governors Association in 2014 and then ran for president in 2015 and part of 2016 and then was involved with President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign and transition last year.
Christie made drug addiction issues a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, including in New Hampshire, which has seen some of the worst effects of the opioid crisis in New England. He used a speech to the New Hampshire Legislature last year to focus on the opioid crisis.
Several other governors, including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) have made the opioid crisis a center of their agenda. While opioids were a dominant theme of Sununu’s inaugural address last week, he did not dedicate the entire speech to the issue like Christie’s speech. Sununu’s predecessor, Democrat Maggie Hassan, now a U.S. senator, has also made the opioid crisis a top theme of hers in both the governor’s office and the Senate.
Christie focused two parts of his speech on how he has been personally touched by the crisis. He noted a law school friend of his who battled a prescription drug and alcohol addiction which cost him his job, marriage and life. Christie also talked about a former aide, A.J. Solomon, who secretly battled drug addiction while working in the governor’s office and after. He noted that Solomon received treatment and is now in the process of opening a recovery center in the Camden area.
Christie said that drug addiction can hit all walks of life, noting his law school friend’s affluence and that Solomon is the son of state Supreme Court Justice Lee Solomon and his wife, Dianne, who is a commissioner of the state Board of Public Utilities.
Christie said he knew he was departing with the speeches of past governors with his remarks.
“I know this is a very different State of the State address. But when our children are dying in the street, New Jersey should be offended if I came up here and gave a typical political speech,” he said. “They will be even more offended if we do not act on my plan without delay.