NEWARK, N.J. — “Is he some sort of crazy liberal?” former New Jersey Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey says to the laughter of the audience at this predominantly-black church.
McGreevey is talking about Republican Chris Christie — seated feet away — who is at New Hope Baptist Church on Sussex Avenue talking about drug addiction, the failed war on drugs and the stigma associated with being an addict.
The location for Tuesday’s forum, led by Christie, is symbolic: It’s not only the childhood church of Whitney Houston, but is where the singer’s funeral was held after she died in 2012 of a drug overdose.
Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey who is thinking about running for president, spent Tuesday inside this massive brick-walled, wooden-ceiling church arguing more needs to be done about drug addiction than just sending people to jail.
In an interview with The Daily Caller after the event, Christie dismissed McGreevey’s joking suggestion that his new emphasis on drug addiction is not very fitting for a conservative politician.
“That’s Jim McGreevey,” said Christie, sitting in a church pew. “I believe this position is completely consistent with being pro-life. I’m for life at every stage of life.”
The event was billed by Christie aides as a way to bring together those “impacted by drug addiction for a discussion on how to end the stigma.”
TheDC asked Christie if he is willing to reconsider doing away with some drug laws that send non-violent addicts to jail– something critics say is a big waste of money. “Well, I already have,” he replied.
Christie pointed out that he signed a bill into law in New Jersey stopping the practice of mandatory prison for first-time, non-violent drug offenders. “It’s mandatory inpatient drug treatment,” he said. “That’s a significant change to the law, and I don’t know that there’s many states that have that in the country. So yeah, I’m always willing to reconsider those things.”
“What I’m not willing to reconsider is decriminalization,” Christie made clear.
“I just think that’s the wrong path to go,” he said. “And I think that sends the wrong message to our children. And I would not consider that. But I have considered the way we deal with the punishment aspect of it, and I think we need to go more the emphasis of treatment than incarceration for non-violent people.”
What about the argument that there could be an economic benefit to decriminalizing marijuana?
“No,” Christie said. “Ask Colorado if there’s economic benefits. When banks won’t take the money because the federal government still says that marijuana is a criminal substance, and these shops are operating in cash, ask them how much they’ve gotten in tax revenue on a cash based system. It’s a fallacious argument and it sends the wrong message to our children. I don’t favor it, and I will never favor it.”
But what about proponents that say legalization could reduce crime by getting it off the black market?
“Yeah, they’re wrong,” Christie shot back. “They’re wrong… It’s that simple. I’ve heard every one of their arguments. I don’t buy any of the arguments and it’s the wrong message to send to our kids. It’s the wrong thing to do. I’m not in favor.”
But what about the argument that the government regulates alcohol, so why not marijuana?
“They could make that about every drug,” Christie said. “What are we going to start to do then? Are we going to legalize heroin? Are we going to legalize angel dust? I mean, what’s next?”
“Everyone knows, and every study has shown, that marijuana is a gateway drug to more serious drugs,” Christie continued. “Always has been that. I think this move in our country towards decriminalization and legalization in some respects, in places like Colorado, is just wrong.”
Pastor Joe Carter of the the New Hope Baptist Church opened the forum with Christie Tuesday by saying there is no better time to work “across party lines, race lines, economic lines” and “seriously have a conversation about how to move forward to address this issue.” Pews inside the church were packed with hundreds of people, both black and white.
Other panelists included former Fox News anchor Laurie Dhue, who has been sober since 2007 and told the audience, “I used to sleep on the floor of my office. I was so hungover, I couldn’t move. I did it day after day, year after year. But since I’ve found recovery, everything has changed.”
“You know, we’re not bad people trying to get good,” Dhue said. “We’re sick people trying to get better.”
Christie said his views drug addiction are rooted in personal experience.
In a video opening up Tuesday’s forum, Christie discussed the recent death of a good friend from law school, who “married a good woman, had three beautiful daughters, had a great career, major law firm in New Jersey.” The friend was addicted to painkillers and alcohol.
“And just about six months ago, after he was divorced, lost his job, lost his drivers license, lost his ability to make a living, they found him dead in a motel room at 52 years old,” Christie said in the video. “This is not just about young people. This is not just about the poor. This is not just about the uneducated. This is about anyone, at anytime, who could fall victim to this.”
“And you know, I just miss my friend.”
Asked what larger political message he is trying to send by his presence at the inner-city church, Christie said, “I think whatever message I’m trying to send, I’ve been sending for five years. You know, I’m a guy who has been coming to these places every since I started to run in 2009 because I wanted to listen and I wanted to try to get people to listen to me.”
“While others may be new to this, this is nothing new to me,” Christie said, surrounded by yellow, blue and red stained-glass windows. “I’ve been doing this for five years.”