Kevin Riordan: Christie's comment on treating drug abuse stirs hope

Gov. Christie: "I ask this Legislature and the chief justice to join me in this commitment. . . . It will send a clear message to those who have fallen victim to the disease of drug abuse - we want to help you, not throw you away."
Gov. Christie: "I ask this Legislature and the chief justice to join me in this commitment. . . . It will send a clear message to those who have fallen victim to the disease of drug abuse - we want to help you, not throw you away." (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff photographer, file)
Posted: February 12, 2012

On the front lines of the real war on drugs in New Jersey, people are heartened by five words in Gov. Christie's State of the State address.

"The disease of drug abuse" was the phrase the governor used in proposing mandatory addiction treatment in cases of nonviolent drug-related offenses.

"The governor gets it," says Stephanie Loebs, vice president of treatment services at Seabrook House Inc., a rehabilitation center in Cumberland County that has helped addicts and alcoholics recover for nearly 40 years.

"The social stigma [is] that addiction . . . is an issue of morals, or a lack of intestinal fortitude, or a lack of willpower," Loebs says. "Addiction is a chronic illness."

It's one thing for a treatment professional such as Loebs or a media personality such as Dr. Phil to embrace the concept that addiction, like alcoholism, is a disease.

But when a hard-charging former U.S. attorney like Christie puts his muscle behind what some might see as a "softer" view about the nature of the beast, it bolsters public acceptance of a fact anyone familiar with addiction and recovery understands all too well.

I'm likewise struck by the language Christie used during his Jan. 17 address, and has continued using as he promotes the proposal in public appearances.

His word choices contrast vividly with the abrasive statements on other issues that have helped make him a celebrity inside and outside the Republican Party.

Referring to offenders who "have not violently victimized society," Christie said: "Everyone deserves a second chance, because no life is disposable."

"I ask this Legislature and the chief justice to join me in this commitment. . . . It will send a clear message to those who have fallen victim to the disease of drug abuse - we want to help you, not throw you away."

Christie's proposal makes philosophical as well as fiscal sense, says Bill Antinore, a recovering addict who works with ex-cons in his Camden-based ministry called Seeds of Hope.

"Sending the nonviolent [addicts] to prison makes no sense," he says.

New Jersey spends $40,000 to incarcerate a person for 12 months, but could provide a year of treatment in a secure drug-treatment facility for $12,000.

With mandatory rehab for low-level offenders, "public safety isn't compromised," Antinore says. "And from a taxpayers' standpoint, why not have this trade-off?"

"We're hopeful about the governor's proposal," says Patricia McKernan, president of the New Jersey Coalition of Community Corrections Providers.

"Expanding treatment options is great," McKernan adds, noting, however, that addiction is just one of many issues facing offenders returning to their communities.

About 12,000 inmates are released from state prisons in New Jersey every year.

"Expanding the treatment options for individuals prior to their entering the [correctional] system would be even better," says McKernan, who is the chief operating officer of Volunteers of America Delaware Valley and my former colleague there.

The New Jersey State Parole Board "fully supports the governor's proposal," says Sherry Sandler, who works for the board's community programs division. "We've always had the position that treatment works. And New Jersey's success in reducing the prison population is partially related to our use of treatment."

Just because offenders would be sentenced to rehab under Christie's proposal does not mean treatment would be less effective, says Loebs, noting that most patients end up in treatment because loved ones, employers, clergy, or others have persuaded them to go.

This moment is sometimes called "hitting bottom," when the alcoholic or addict realizes the truth.

"Every one of God's creations can be redeemed," Christie said.

I certainly agree.

Five years ago this month, I hit bottom.

And I got my own second chance.


Contact staff writer Kevin Riordan

at 856-779-3845, kriordan@ phillynews.com, or @inqkriordan on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at http://www.philly.com/blinq.

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