One of Chris Christie’s most appealing traits as a leading voice within the Republican Party is his advocacy for the reformation of the sentencing guidelines for New Jersey drug offenders.
“What we’re dealing with most people here is an addiction, an illness that needs to be treated as such,” Christie said in 2012 after signing a bill that established a pilot program mandating drug treatment for low-level offenders who would otherwise have served prison terms.
In his second inaugural address, Christie insisted that the War on Drugs had “failed.” The Garden State governor has long advocated the reformation of drug-related sentencing to focus on treatment rather than incarceration. “I’m pro-life, and I believe strongly in the sanctity of life,” Christie said in 2014. “It’s great to be pro-life, but you need to be pro-life after they get out of the womb, too.”
“If we believe in the sanctity of life, then we need to believe in how life is precious for every moment that God gives us,” he added. “If, in fact, that we believe life is precious — and I do — then the life of the drug-addicted teenager who has been arrested for the sixth time is just as precious as the life of any one of my children.”
From a policy perspective, the only good reason to maintain the current rates of incarnation for non-violent drug offenders is nostalgia for the late 20th Century. When the agency responsible for enforcing American drug laws isn’t hosting sex parties with prostitutes provided by Colombia-based cartels, it’s hemorrhaging American tax dollars in a policing campaign that can point to few successes. Beyond, of course, the criminalization and imprisonment of non-violent addicts.
While the governor has never been shy about insisting that the criminalization of substance abuse is a misguided approach to quality of life policing, he has drawn the line at the legalization of any Schedule 1 narcotics including marijuana. This week, the governor insisted that those states that do legalize and tax the use of marijuana for recreational purposes are collecting “blood money.”
“Fact is, that we should stop those things we can stop,” Christie said. “And as long as I’m governor of New Jersey, there won’t be legalized marijuana in this state. And I think other states that have gone down the path of that experiment — mostly in pursuit of tax riches — have shown unless the federal government changes their mind on this, that it becomes a cash business. And not impugning cash businesses, but they tend — at times — to maybe not be the most compliant taxpayers in the world.”
The governor said he believes states like Colorado, where recreational marijuana use is legal but strictly regulated, have confirmed this statement.
“I’ve had many taxpayers at town hall meetings who will ask me about, why not legalize marijuana to make the taxes go a little higher?” Christie said. “To me, that’s blood money. I’m not going to put the lives of children and citizens at risk to put a little more money into the state coffers, at least not on my watch.”
This is a dispiriting comment from the governor who otherwise serves as a model for his party on the issue of drug sentencing and criminal justice reform. There is little in the way of hard evidence to indicate that the “gateway effect” from marijuana use cannot be equally or better explained by other factors.
An analysis from the RAND Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center (DPRC) casts doubt on the gateway theory. “The DPRC research team examined the drug use patterns reported by more than 58,000 U.S. residents between the ages of 12 and 25 who participated in the National Household Surveys on Drug Abuse (NHSDA) conducted between 1982 and 1994,” the study read. It concluded that marijuana use and hard drug use are not disassociated, but establishing a sequential link between marijuana use and harder drugs is difficult to establish.
There is some support for such a “common-factor” model in studies of genetic, familial, and environmental factors influencing drug use. The presence of a common propensity could explain why people who use one drug are so much more likely to use another than are people who do not use the first drug. It has also been suggested that marijuana use precedes hard-drug use simply because opportunities to use marijuana come earlier in life than opportunities to use hard drugs. The DPRC analysis offers the first quantitative evidence that these observations can, without resort to a gateway effect, explain the strong observed associations between marijuana and hard-drug initiation.
The new DPRC research thus demonstrates that the phenomena supporting claims that marijuana is a gateway drug also support the alternative explanation: that it is not marijuana use but individuals’ opportunities and unique propensities to use drugs that determine their risk of initiating hard drugs. The research does not disprove the gateway theory; it merely shows that another explanation is plausible.
Even a National Institute on Drug Abuse study concluded that tobacco, alcohol, or social interactions with other drug users are as likely to produce a “gateway effect” as is the use of marijuana.
Early exposure to cannabinoids in adolescent rodents decreases the reactivity of brain dopamine reward centers later in adulthood. To the extent that these findings generalize to humans, this could help explain early marijuana initiates’ increased vulnerability for drug abuse and addiction to other substances of abuse later in life that has been reported by most epidemiological studies. It is also consistent with animal experiments showing THC’s ability to “prime” the brain for enhanced responses to other drugs. For example, rats previously administered THC show heightened behavioral response not only when further exposed to THC but also when exposed to other drugs such as morphine — a phenomenon called cross-sensitization.
These findings are consistent with the idea of marijuana as a “gateway drug.” However, most people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, “harder” substances. Also, cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs and are, like marijuana, also typically used before a person progresses to other, more harmful substances.
As for “blood money,” few would contend that the criminal enterprises supplying marijuana users with that drug are more responsible than the governments of Colorado, Washington, and Alaska.
“Right now, revenue from marijuana sales goes to street corner dealers and drug cartels, which are thriving in the unregulated marketplace,” read a statement from the lobbying group New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform in response to Christie’s comments. “If the governor truly wants to reduce the harms of marijuana, he should support government regulation and control.”
Christie’s empathetic approach to addressing drug addiction and sentencing reform is a courageous stance on the issue. If he were to declare a presidential campaign, his approach to the reformation of America’s drug sentencing guidelines would force the rest of the Republican field to confront the failures and injustices of the drug war. His position on the legalization of marijuana is, however, not nearly as reform-minded. Moreover, to accuse those state governments that are presently robbing illicit drug dealers of millions of dollars that they otherwise would have claimed from the sale of illegal marijuana of collecting “blood money” is perverse.