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TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — On no one's early list of issues likely to headline the 2016 Republican presidential primaries is the nation's "war on drugs."
Chris Christie plans to put it there.
The New Jersey governor, steadily pushing himself back into the 2016 discussion after a political scandal at home, recently marked the 43rd anniversary of President Richard Nixon's famous declaration by expanding a program that equips first responders with a drug to combat heroin overdoses.
The next day, he told recovering addicts at a drug treatment center that "there is simply no more important issue to me, in my heart as governor."
"I have to struggle with fiscal problems and tax problems and job creation and health care and education, lots of other issues that are clearly important. And I'm not trying to minimize those," Christie said. "But you need to understand that as a father there's nothing more important to me than this."
It might sound like a peculiar topic for a blue state Republican governor to claim as a signature issue ahead of a potential presidential bid. And consider that he probably will be competing in primaries dominated by conservative voters who might be expected to favor law-and-order candidates.
A few states are experimenting with decriminalizing marijuana amid a nationwide boom in heroin abuse. Also, several Republicans governors have embraced prison and sentencing reform as a way of saving money.
So Christie could find a receptive audience for his message.
"I think what 10 years ago was perceived as largely an urban problem has become a national problem," said Steve Duprey, New Hampshire's former Republican state chairman and current member of the Republican National Committee. "It is a big issue."
In an early test of the message before GOP activists, Christie won applause at a Washington conference hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a group led by longtime Christian activist Ralph Reed, as he made the case for treatment instead of incarceration.
Christie went as far as to compare the issue of addiction to that of abortion.
"I believe if you're pro-life, as I am, you need to be pro-life for the whole life. You can't just afford to be pro-life when the human being is in the womb," he said.
Christie's history with drug policy dates to his first elected position in county government 20 years ago, when he was assigned to oversee human services and wound up working with Daytop New Jersey, an addiction treatment center. He joined the group's board and has been personally contributing and steering state money to fund its operations ever since.
The issue became more personal eight years ago, when one of Christie's best friends from law school — the smartest and most successful of a tight-knit group, as he tells it — developed an addiction to prescription drugs.
Christie said his friend went through a dozen treatment programs as he lost his job, got divorced and became estranged from his three young daughters. Earlier this year, Christie got a Sunday morning call with word his 52-year-old friend had been found dead in a suburban New York motel room, along with empty bottles of Percocet and vodka.
"It just made me believe the words that I had actually said previously even more — that this could happen to anyone," Christie said in an interview.
Christie isn't an advocate of the same kind of sweeping changes to the nation's drug laws as those on the left who share his opinion the war on drugs is a trillion-dollar "failure."
While he has expanded the use of drug courts in New Jersey and pushed through a measure forcing individuals arrested for minor drug offenses to complete drug treatment programs, the former U.S. attorney remains opposed to the legalization of marijuana.
"For him to say that he believes that the war on drugs has failed and then to also believe that people should continue being prosecuted and criminalized for nonviolent offenses like simple possession of marijuana for personal use ... there's this inherent inconsistency," said Udi Ofer, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. "He has to choose which side he's on."
Christie is undeterred by such criticism and is willing to address the politics of his choice of issue directly. He said he believes his position will "play well" in other states.
"There are drug addicts in Ohio and in Wisconsin and in Florida and Iowa and New Hampshire," he said. "And I think those people will understand the truth of what we're talking about and I think will be happy that we're out here publicly discussing ways to really give people the tools to deal with it."
Grover Norquist, the anti-tax advocate and a libertarian-leaning leader in the GOP, said the conversation about drugs has changed since the crack epidemic of the 1980s, when drugs and crime were thought to go hand in hand. It's an issue that could also give GOP primary voters something to remember about Christie that isn't related to clogging a bridge with traffic to score political points.
"I think it is the sort of thing that would make somebody say, 'Here's a serious person struggling with serious issues,'" Norquist said. "It would certainly give people more willingness to take a look at you again."
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