What will the first line in Chris Christie’s obituary be? It may be that his career was ended by a man-made traffic disaster, though that phrase could very well describe New Jersey in toto. I doubt very much that it will be about his presidency or his 2016 nomination on the Republican ticket — two things that seem to me unlikely to happen regardless of the bridge scandal. But if he keeps one promise — just one — from his inauguration speech, he will be eulogized as a figure of some importance beyond the material he has provided to comedians.
“We will end the failed war on drugs,” he said, “that believes that incarceration is the cure of every ill caused by drug abuse. We will make drug treatment available to as many of our non-violent offenders as we can, and we will partner with our citizens to create a society that understands that every life has value and no life is disposable.” That is revolutionary stuff — and will be no mean feat to accomplish.
This is not the first time Christie has expressed opposition to our second-longest and second-most-destructive war. (The longest and most destructive has been the war on poverty.) He pronounced its failure at a summer 2012 speech to the Brookings Institution, and has been, rhetorically at least, a sensible voice on the issue.
Consider the context for a moment: Governor Christie is not some libertarianish back-bencher or a presidential candidate running on some doomed third-party ticket. He is the twice-elected Republican governor of the nation’s eleventh-most-populous state, and a man whom many people (though I am not one of them) consider a serious contender for the White House. Many on the right, not least of them the editors of this magazine, have been arguing for decades that the war on drugs is a failure — National Review’s 1996 symposium on the issue was headlined “The War on Drugs Is Lost” — but despite the strength of the evidence and the moral weight of the argument, ending drug prohibition is a position that has for decades failed to gain much traction in the mainstream political debate. There has been some incremental liberalization when it comes to marijuana, but Christie’s promise is considerably more broad. Those who labor in think-tank obscurity often despair of their ideas’ ever entering general political circulation; Christie’s promise is a reminder that, though it may take years or decades, ideas matter.
Drug addiction is an unalloyed evil, a destroyer of lives and families, an invitation to unemployment, poverty, disease, and in many cases an early death. But not every evil is a matter for the police and the prisons; in the matter of drug abuse and addiction, it has taken our nation a tragically, even catastrophically, long time to begin to figure that out. Many people will dabble in drugs without ever becoming addicts, and many of those who are arrested on drug charges suffer far more from their criminal histories than they ever do from the drugs. The war on drugs has filled our prisons and contributed to the scandalous conditions therein, which should be a source of deep and abiding shame for any decent and patriotic American. There are some horrible and evil people in our prisons, but no human being deserves the treatment — from casual brutality to constant rape — meted out there.
As Radley Balko has expended much ink and many pixels pointing out, the economics and the rhetoric of the drug war — which too many in positions of power regard as an actual war — have contributed significantly to the militarization of our police agencies, giving rise to the spectacle of small-town police officers rolling through suburban streets in armored vehicles and camouflage fatigues.
Governor Christie can expect serious opposition. Both houses of the New Jersey legislature are dominated by Democrats, among whom public-sector unions — including police and jailers’ unions — enjoy considerable clout. Some of those unions have taken more sensible positions on the matter, but others are bitterly opposed to liberalization, for example those that lobbied heavily against California’s Proposition 19, which would have legalized recreational marijuana.
The barriers to Christie’s becoming president are substantial: Even if he were to avoid being chewed up by restive conservatives in the GOP primary, the media and the Democrats still would stand an excellent chance of using his administration’s scandals to keep him out of the White House. But he still has the opportunity to be a transformative governor. He only has to keep one promise to achieve that. It’s a big one, but within reach.
— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.