Chris Christie to the Drug War: I Wish I Knew How to Quit You

In one breath, the New Jersey governor gives credibility to one of the drug war’s enduring myths, and in the next, he calls the whole thing an ‘abject failure.’

The Daily Beast

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 40 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.”

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 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 doctors’ names deters some from becoming involved with the program.

Reached for comment, a spokesman for Christie, Michael Drewniak, said the governor’s critics “are wrong. The program is medically based, not permissive as in states like Colorado that are experiencing the consequences of legalization. Appropriate restrictions in New Jersey's medically based program explains the limited enrollment versus the tens of thousands predicted—hoped for—by 'advocates' who were really counting on legalization and the profits that would come from legalization. We're not doing that.”

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Still, Christie’s comment that there is “a huge demand for marijuana, not medical marijuana,” is made even more eyebrow-raising in light of recent stories concerning cannabis as an effective treatment for severe epilepsy in kids.

It was that very treatment that the mother of a 15-month-old named Sabina Joana was fighting to get for her daughter, who suffered from Dravet syndrome (a rare form of epilepsy that can be treated with cannabis), before she was taken off life support at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, the town where Christie grew up.

The Joanas spent months trying to find a doctor who could prescribe “Charlotte’s Web”—CBD oil, a non-psychoactive ingredient in pot that has been successful at stopping seizures. The specific strain was not available in New Jersey, and Sabina succumbed to her illness before her family could move to Colorado to get it for her.

Paula criticized the Christie administration’s handling of the medical marijuana program in an Op-Ed for the Ledger, writing, “My daughter died on their watch...Political agendas kill people. It killed my daughter.”

Upon hearing the story at a town hall in April, Christie told Joana he was “horribly sorry,” adding that he would consider forcing dispensaries to carry Charlotte’s Web.

Studies have repeatedly shown that marijuana is beneficial for a variety of medical conditions. In what is considered a seminal study on the issue, conducted by researchers from the University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, marijuana was proven to be a “first line treatment” for neuropathic pain.

Other studies have concluded that cannabis can “exert palliative effects” on cancer patients, preventing nasuea, vomiting, and pain, stimulating appetites, and that it can improve the quality of life for those living with HIV/AIDS.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 2.5 million Americans were registered with medical marijuana identification cards in 2011. Since then, the number of states where medical cannabis is legal has almost doubled. With a surge in medical marijuana use across the nation has come overwhelming public support—58 percent of Americans now favor legalization.

The momentum has even extended to Congress, where the first major medical marijuana reform bill passed just weeks ago.

Christie was publicly calling the War on Drugs a failure as early as 2012, when he said in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington, “We’re warehousing addicted people every day in New Jersey, giving them no treatment.” During the speech, Christie used a line he would recycle again and again as drug policy and prison reform gained momentum among mainstream conservatives: “If you’re pro-life, as I am, you can’t be pro-life just in the womb.”

Christie used a variation of that very line at CPAC this year, where the sentiment was echoed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, who favors marijuana decriminalization as part of the Lone Star State’s progressive prison reform policy.

On Tuesday, 30 members of Congress called on the Obama administration to remove obstacles to marijuana research in a bipartisan letter sent to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Drug War has resulted in the incarceration of 2.2 million Americans, a number that made up more than 50 percent of the federal inmate population in America in 2010. Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for Tax Reform, told The Daily Beast that while prison reform is on its way to becoming a consensus issue for conservatives by the time the GOP caucuses roll around, medical marijuana legalization becoming part of the right-wing platform is a ways off.

Norquist told The Daily Beast that many conservatives still agree with Christie’s Monday night comments, and that other things--like lowering mandatory minimums and focusing on parole and probation instead of jail time--are an easier sell at the present moment. “I think you probably have to have a few more years of a few more states [legalizing medical marijuana] under the belt before more conservatives would feel comfortable [supporting it].”

Christie has noted the basic economic common sense of choosing rehabilitation over incarceration: “It costs $49,000 a year to warehouse a prisoner in New Jersey state prisons. A full year of inpatient drug treatment costs just $24,000.”

In June 2012, Christie signed into a law a bill which expanded the Garden State’s drug court program, requiring nonviolent offenders to enter treatment, as part of a pilot program. Participants in the program must take part in court-prescribed treatments and submit to regular drug testing--and failing a drug test could result in jail time. Christie reportedly wanted the progressive program implemented statewide, and it was Democrats standing in the way with cost concerns.

But some contend that Christie looks less like an opponent of the War on Drugs than he does an active participant.

Ken Wolski, the executive director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey, told The Daily Beast, “Of course, it is the threat of prison that ensures marijuana offenders—even medical marijuana users—attend these treatment programs, so really Christie continues to wage the War on Drugs while recognizing it as a failure and enriching his friends in the [pharmacuetical] industry.”

Yet Christie seems to believe it’s possible to decry the War on Drugs while taking baby steps toward vague reform. Drewniak told The Daily Beast that many advocates are “looking for something far beyond a medical marijuana program,” something which is “not going to happen in New Jersey during this administration. In fact, the law we’ve implemented—signed by the prior governor—did not anticipate or endorse legalization.”

The “war on drugs” as we know it today began in 1961 when Congress began allotting President Richard Nixon what would amount to $371 million to fight the rise of drug addiction in America—which he claimed had become a “national emergency.” Nixon used the money to launch several massive drug-fighting initiatives, one of which included significantly augmenting federal drug control agencies and passing new measures like mandatory sentencing and no-knock warrants (both of which are still used today). After signing the official piece of legislation in January 1962, Nixon officially declared war. “I am convinced that the only way to fight this menace is by attacking it on many fronts,” he said in a letter to Congress.

Today, the term applies to the residual effects of Nixon’s war—namely, the fierce prohibition and criminalization of drugs in America. Beyond harsh sentencing and federal crackdowns, the war included placing many drugs on a "Schedule I Substance” list. The classification—which includes heroin, cocaine, and marijuana—represents the most restrictive class of illicit drugs in America, so-classified based on a perceived lack of medical benefit and high risk of addiction.

Marijuana’s role in the war on drugs is considered by many to be the ultimate example of the drug war’s failure. In 1970, Nixon temporarily placed it on the schedule I list, pending a review from a congressional commission. Following a thorough examination of the drug’s effects in 1972, every single member of the commission voted in favor of decriminalizing the possession and distribution of marijuana for personal use. Nixon ignored the recommendation, solidifying marijuana’s classification as one of the deadliest drugs in America. Attempts by individual states to decriminalize it in the five years following were squandered as teen marijuana use began to rise.

Despite innumerable studies on the medical benefits of marijuana, it remains classified as a schedule I substance, a distinction which makes it nearly impossible to obtain for medical research (since it’s classification allegedly proves it to have no medical benefit). It’s a problem that, in turn, makes obtaining it for medical benefit, even in state’s where individual laws have been passed, extremely difficult. The criminalization of marijuana, which Christie himself has now backed, is a direct result of Nixon’s drug-fighting initiatives. The stigma surrounding its use is arguably one of the most harmful byproducts of the war on drugs.

In other words, Christie’s alleged distaste for the war on drugs is sabotaged by his own subliminal support of it. His view that “medical marijuana” is a “front for legalization” endorses the very foundation on which the drug war rests: they are evil and void of medical benefit. His insistence that marijuana remain on the schedule I substance list alongside the most dangerous and addictive drugs in the world not only validates Nixon's criminalization of the drug, it promotes it.

Calling the $1 trillion war on drugs a failure while defending the battle from which it was born is hypocrisy at its finest. An accurate condemnation of the war on drugs would require Christie to target a particularly loud foot soldier: himself.