Christie could find agreement with rivals over drug abuse

By Michael Catalini Associated Press

TRENTON, N.J. — The Legislature is preparing to claw into Gov. Chris Christie's 2016 budget but one area that may prove to be more common ground than battleground is on drug abuse and addiction services, an issue the governor has elevated among many others.

Drug addiction services make up a small part of Christie's $33.8 billion budget proposal — just under 2 percent. But the governor, who is considering a run for the White House in 2016, dedicated about a quarter of his annual state of the state address to discussing the issue.

He's proposed increasing funding for drug courts, which provide rehabilitation services, by $8.5 million. He's also earmarked $2.3 million for a substance use disorder entity and, new for the next fiscal year, will be what Christie has billed as a single-stop system, including a phone line that addicts can call to get help.

It's an agenda that Democrats who control the Legislature can get behind, and the proposals come after New Jersey Democrats criticized and picked apart the governor's priorities.

That's because addiction prevention are bipartisan issues, according to Department of Human Services spokeswoman Ellen Lovejoy.

 

What makes addiction services different, Democrats say, is that Christie has engaged on the issue: he's signed legislation that would decriminalize drug users who call emergency services looking for help and perhaps most importantly he's used his bully pulpit to say drug abuse is a disease rather than a source of shame.

"I'd give him an A," said Democratic state Sen. Joe Vitale, who has written 21 bills dealing with drug abuse and addiction this session. "He's been out front. No one has had to encourage him or cajole him into the issue."

Even as Christie shines a spotlight on the issue, budget constraints threaten treatment programs in the state.

The John Brooks Recovery Center in Atlantic City is in danger of having to shut down its 119-bed long-term treatment facility, said center CEO Alan Oberman. The center, which Oberman estimates is one of perhaps two centers in southern New Jersey, is affected by Atlantic City's broader economic woes and needs an additional $6 million appropriation or grant to keep the long-term treatment operation going.

"I think it's a crisis," he said, adding that his center handles more than 10 percent of the state's long-term treatment patients.

The center's trouble illustrates the problem of fixed resources, lawmakers and other drug policy experts said.

Dan Meara, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence-New Jersey, also gave Christie a good grade, but said just because the governor is focused on addiction services and has proposed new ideas, problems will remain.

"I'd probably have to give him an A. He's been fantastic. On addiction he's — in terms of his oratory — it's been spot on," he said. "(But) the capacity to meet the need does not magically materialize because we have a call center."

Indeed, some Democrats, especially those at the top of the ticket in this November's election, give the governor mixed reviews.

"I think the plan is well-intended," said Democratic Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle. "It's about putting moneys and resources where we need it the most. It's a little too early to say."


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