MANCHESTER, N.H. — As he explores a run for president, Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey returned to the first-in-the-nation primary state Thursday with the goal of putting drug addiction and recovery on the national agenda.
Like many states, New Hampshire is grappling with a sudden spike of deaths from opioid overdoses, especially from heroin.
In an exclusive sit-down interview with the Globe, Christie vowed to make drug addiction one of the top “five or six” issues of his campaign, along with the economy and foreign policy — should he run for president. Christie said he will make a decision on the White House race early this summer.
“Folks should know that there is treatment available, that this is a treatable disease and that people don’t have to give up their lives to this addiction,” Christie said. “There is a role that government can play in this, and we need to release families from this stigma and the shame that goes with drug addiction.”
Christie said he spearheaded reforms in New Jersey aimed at “giving people a second chance.” These included increasing funding for drug courts and treatment centers, as well as signing legislation aimed at reducing overdoses. He also established an addiction task force, held a summit on drug addiction and sentencing, and added incentives for businesses to hire those in recovery.
The issue became personal for Christie after a law school friend died from an overdose last year. The father of four said the issue still keeps him up at night.
But it is also pertinent in the Granite State.
Governor Maggie Hassan has labeled substance abuse an epidemic in New Hampshire and recently appointed a drug czar. US Senator Kelly Ayotte dedicated her entire public schedule Friday morning to discussions on heroin and drug use. The state’s chief medical examiner has called heroin addiction the “Ebola of northern New England.”
“We want to give people a second chance at life,” Christie said regarding his stance against abortion. “I think that all too often we spend an inordinate amount of that time talking about the nine, ten months in the womb and not about life afterward. Life gets even more difficult once it comes into the world. We need to take care of those folks.”
Christie discussed drugs in depth at the Portland Pie Company, a pizza place in downtown Manchester where a 24-year-old employee, Molly Parks, died of an overdose in a bathroom last month. Her family openly discussed her drug addiction in her obituary. The restaurant plans to donate a percentage of sales from an upcoming fund-raiser to a local rehabilitation center.
Christie, a former federal prosecutor, said he came to understand the complexity of the problem when he served in county government. In that role, he got to know a church-run facility that works with youth drug addiction and later served on its board.
“I was overwhelmed not only by the quality of the problems, but the diversity of the kids who were having these problems,” Christie said.
Later on Thursday, Christie held a round-table discussion at a Manchester drug treatment facility. There, he met with Mayor Ted Gatsas, a Republican, who said, “The drug addict, the heroin addict no longer has a face. It’s everybody.”
Christine Weber, director of the Farnum Center in Manchester, said there have been 321 overdoses in the first four months of 2015. In all of 2013, there were 193 overdoses, according to New Hampshire’s medical examiners office.
Christie said the cause of much of the opioid addiction is linked to prescription drugs.
“You find that many of these folks, both adults and kids, start by getting hooked on things like Percocet and Oxycontin,” he said. “And then on the black market, heroin and other drugs are much cheaper.”
Christie is in the middle of a two-day swing through the Granite State. In addition to discussions on drug addiction, he will hold town hall-style events around the state.
He is making an effort to present himself as a candidate willing to talk about tough issues. During his last visit to the state, Christie proposed sweeping changes to the federal entitlement system. When he returns to the state on Tuesday, Christie is expected to discuss tax reform.
These visits come as Christie has taken a nose dive in polls of likely Republican voters in New Hampshire. A University of New Hampshire poll released Wednesday showed Christie at the back of the pack, with 3 percent of support in a hypothetical GOP primary — down 6 points from a similar survey in February.
In response to a question on that downward shift, Christie noted the same poll showed only 5 percent of voters have made up their mind about the candidates and he would work “on the other 95 percent” if he runs.