This past week, the nation finally started to pay attention to what is arguably one of this GOP candidates's best ideas. Following a passionate town hall speech in New Hampshire, in which Chris Christie elucidated his ideas on substance abuse, a video of the event went viral. It wasn't a hard-hitting commentary on the need to crack down on drug use, or cheerleading for a continuation of the war on drugs. Instead, Christie delivered a compassionate, moving plea for Americans to think of drug abuse and addition as a public health issue, rather than a criminal justice one.
Christie is an outspoken advocate for increasing access to treatment for individuals suffering from addiction, rather than incarcerating large amounts of people for nonviolent drug offenses. But it's the way Christie approaches the issue that is key, and which sets him apart from the rest of the pack.
"I’m pro-life, and I think that if you're pro-life, you’ve gotta be pro-life for the whole life, not just the nine months they’re in the womb," Christie said. "It’s easy to be pro-life for the nine months they’re in the womb. They haven't done anything to disappoint us yet. They’re perfect in there. But when they get out, that’s when it gets tough. The 16-year-old teenage girl on the floor of the county lockup addicted to heroin, I’m pro-life for her, too."
It's a compelling argument, and one that Christie has repeated both in his time as governor and on the campaign trail. It's refreshing to have a presidential candidate — especially a Republican one — recognize and acknowledge the double standards rampant in America when it comes to talking about addiction. "Somehow, if it's heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say, 'They decided it, they're getting what they deserved,'" Christie said.
To the other candidates' credit, Christie isn't the only 2016 contender who has realized this about drug abuse. Bernie Sanders, who recently came out in favor of legalizing marijuana, has been vocal about the need to shift away from incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders. While in Congress, he's pushed for efforts to lower the price of a drug commonly used to treat heroin overdoses. And Hillary Clinton has proposed a plan to provide treatment for and reduce the incarceration of drug offenders.
And although Christie often points to the loss of a friend to drug abuse, there are other Republican contenders who have been hit harder by the effects of addiction. Jeb Bush — who's father, former president George H.W. Bush, was a key figure in the war on drugs — has spoken about his daughter's struggle with addiction. And during one GOP primary debate, Carly Fiorina sucker punched the nation in the feels when she referenced how she had lost a daughter to substance abuse.
Beyond Christie, this extremely necessary conversation is happening on a national scale. Our politicians are beginning to acknowledge that addiction is a disease, not a crime. But what makes Christie stand out among the rest of the group is that he won't stop talking about it. This isn't a new passion for him. Even before the campaign, he was making an effort to combat higher incarceration levels for nonviolent drug offenses. In New Jersey, he's signed bills into law that expand access to treatment, and pushed a "Good Samaritan" law that provides immunity for those who call 911 for someone who's overdosing. He expanded a program that lets family and friends of opiate users gain access to a drug that reverses its effects, and has expanded the number of police officers who carry said drug.
Christie's viral speech may very well be the largest contribution he makes to the 2016 election. His chances of winning the Republican nomination are looking increasingly slim — he's currently sitting at three percent — which means that he's running out of time to make his campaign relevant. The way Christie presents the reality of drug abuse makes it difficult to argue against expanded treatment. And by placing his argument in a pro-life narrative, he has encouraged other conservatives to take up the charge. Substance abuse may become a priority issue heading into 2016. And it may be one thing that both parties can agree on.