NEWARK, N.J. - Gov. Christie joined with the pastor of a church here Tuesday to call for lessening the stigma of drug addiction, invoking a friend's death as he sought to frame the issue as a universal problem.
Addiction "can and does happen to anyone," Christie said, after treatment providers, family members, and recovering addicts shared their perspectives during a summit at the New Hope Baptist Church that also was led by Pastor Joe A. Carter.
In front of more than 200 people - some involved in addiction-treatment programs - the Republican governor said he had made repeated efforts to help a former law school classmate who died this year after struggling with an addiction to painkillers.
His friend, a partner at a law firm and father of three daughters, was "found dead in a motel room at 52" after going through a divorce and losing his job and driver's license, Christie said in a video played at the beginning of Tuesday's program. "Anyone, at any time, could fall victim to this. And I miss my friend."
Christie did not name the man. An aide said the governor has not identified him publicly.
In previous remarks, Christie has said the man was one of his three closest friends from law school and the ex-husband of his doctor, and became addicted to the painkiller Percocet eight years earlier.
Treatment must be more available to people with addiction, and "prayer is not enough," Christie told the crowd at the church Tuesday, encouraging people to talk openly about the issue "not only in professional, but in personal capacities."
He did not specify what further steps the state could take. The governor previously signed a law to expand a mandatory drug court program for nonviolent offenders.
Christie repeatedly spoke in religious terms - at one point describing the act of helping someone recover from addiction as "God's miracle happening on Earth right before your very eyes" - during the event at New Hope, which also hosted a prayer service for Christie's inauguration in January.
Of those in recovery who spoke Tuesday, Christie said, "Every one of these lives is an individual gift from God and has to be treated that way."
The church was attended by the singer Whitney Houston, who grew up in Newark, and Christie noted that he had been criticized for lowering flags to half-staff when she died because she had been a drug abuser.
Carter called for "changing the narrative, changing the conversation, of how we view the drug addict."
Speakers addressed how shame could prevent people from seeking treatment, saying drug users are too often incorrectly seen as bad people, or lacking in willpower.
Women may forgo treatment because they are afraid of losing children, or embarrassed "because they had to sell their body to get the drugs they were using," said Evelyn Sullivan, director of a treatment facility run by Daytop New Jersey, an addiction-treatment provider.
Doctors and nurses need to be taught that addiction is a disease, said Lou Baxter, a physician who specializes in addiction medicine.
"Don't shame a person by saying, 'You don't use drugs, do you?' " Baxter said. "As providers, we need to do a better job."
Other problems identified by providers included a lack of treatment beds. Discussion moderators included former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who counsels prisoners reentering society.
Family members and those in recovery also shared stories. Along with Christie's comments, the video played during the summit featured a woman who said her addiction began after she was taking pain medication for arthritis, a middle-aged man who started using marijuana at age 12 and moved on to cocaine, and a woman who said that although she grew up in a church family, "it just happened."
Craig Hanlon, whom Christie hired as an aide while the governor was U.S. attorney, said family and friends play a critical role in recovery, crediting those close to him with stepping in to help when he was 16 and "had my head in a toilet in a crack house in Harlem."
Too often, "society looks at addicts as 'those people,' " said Hanlon, whom Christie named as an example of the merits of drug treatment during his State of the State speech this year. "We are those people who need help."