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Op-Ed: The Governor Got It Right About Addiction Treatment

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Governor Chris Christie hands former Integrity House Consumer Vanessa Vitolo a pen after signing Executive Order No. 219 declaring the state's opioid epidemic a public health crisis while at Integrity House in Newark, N.J. on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017. (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)
Governor Chris Christie hands former Integrity House Consumer Vanessa Vitolo a pen after signing Executive Order No. 219 declaring the state’s opioid epidemic a public health crisis. (Governor’s Office/Tim Larsen)
Gov. Chris Christie is on point in his State of the State address about the need for addiction treatment. Here’s why:

Recently, the governor talked about the need for “six months of addiction treatment.” While many need far more time in treatment and many years of support following treatment, others can stay clean and sober with continuing Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings. On average therefore, I would say that he is probably correct with a six months average treatment time.

It’s a relief to hear him talking about help for this lifelong disease from a perspective that is supported by both experience and research. Talk by some who favor a two to four week treatment stay at $500/day just doesn’t support the best long-term outcomes. Also it misleads the public into thinking that there is some “quick fix” for this lifelong disease provided you have the money to pay. I’m sure that there may be some addicts who can turn it around in a few weeks but in 50 years of work in the field, I’ve never met one.

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Christie has spoken about his planned “Recovery Coach” program, the conversion of Mid-State Prison into a drug treatment program and a financial commitment to increase access to mental health and substance abuse treatment. All great ideas. Here’s what the governor said recently about funding: “Today, I’m very proud to announce a historic financial commitment of more than $100 million to increase access to care for mental health and substance use.”

Both the governor and the Department of Corrections Commissioner are experienced in this field. They know that imprisonment is not the answer but for many with the disease of addiction, it can be the first step towards clarity and self-reckoning. I know that for many if not most of those recovering people with a criminal background, it can be an essential part of their journey. The real need for the Recovery Coach though is for one-on-one help and support for the next few years after treatment completion. Relapse is all too prevalent even after treatment but with a recovery coach nearby, the relapse can become a helpful part of sustaining recovery. Without the coach though, relapse is often prolonged, sometimes ending in jail or even death.

Judge Dennis Challeen of the National Judicial College, a judge in Minnesota, retired in 1985. Before retiring though, he declared that there were two kinds of offenders: those we are afraid of and should be locked up, and those we are mad at who hurt themselves with substance abuse. For the latter, he found the following inconsistencies as expressed in the poem he wrote called “Imprisonment.” His words express the continued frustration in knowing that help for the addict might start in prison but often does not. Also we’ve come a long way since 1985 in our understanding of the person with addiction.

We are making much progress though in New Jersey with the reduction in the prison population and the proposed conversion of what was once the Mid-State Correctional Center at Fort Dix, now empty, into an addiction treatment center for addict offenders. My recommendation would be to put long-term criminal addict repeat offenders in this proposed facility. This facility might be owned and maintained by the state but run by a consortium of community providers who know the positive long-term impact of the self-help, mutual-help therapeutic community.

After completing their required time at Mid-State, recovering addicts might be referred to other residential treatment providers in the community for continued treatment and care thereafter. To enhance the re-entry process, I would recommend video communication between inmates and the community-based treatment programs for a minimum of six months prior to release to one of those programs. Recovery is not about a protocol for help but rather about a connection with and the understanding of another person, usually a role model in long-term recovery. Most if not all communities have legitimate and experienced agencies and people who may be willing to help an inmate return. The reality is that he/she will return anyway with or without our help so why not start the process in prison.

Our governor’s comment on the need for six months of treatment is a good start but hardcore criminal addicts need years of further support and guidance. Addiction, like diabetes is a lifelong disease. The suggested new Mid-State treatment program would need to be followed by short-term residential or half-way house therapeutic communities (TC) treatment in the community, and then continued coaching and support for several years thereafter.

Let’s hope that once the public understands the need for treatment rather than incarceration, the Governor Christie can put his positive thoughts into action!

David H. Kerr graduated Verona High School with the class of 1960, and went on to found and lead Integrity House, a Newark-based community that became the model for drug rehabilitation programs nationwide.

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