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Can You Say to an Addict That You've Never Made a Bad Choice?

What drug abusers deserve is the same thing smokers deserve. Help. A chance to live another day, whether the healing comes as the result of having a lung removed or treatment in rehab. Every life is indeed precious.
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Chris Christie isn't the doctor in the GOP race for president, but suddenly he sure sounds like it.

Take, for example, the New Jersey governor's impassioned speech on drug addiction that has gone viral with more than 8 million views. Yes, you read that right. A speech about drug addicts has captured the nation's attention. Speaking of his late mother's smoking habit, Christie told a town hall meeting in New Hampshire:

"No one came to me and said, 'Hey, your mother was dumb. She started smoking when she was 16, and after we told her it was bad for her, she kept doing it, so we're not going to give her chemotherapy, we're not going to give her radiation, or any of that stuff. You know why? Because she's getting what she deserves.' No one said that. No one said that about someone who had cancer. Yet somehow, if it's heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say, 'Well, they decided. They're getting what they deserve.'"

For those of us who treat addicts, Christie was preaching to the choir. Call it a voice from the heavens. But his voice is getting the attention that ours haven't.

And the fact that a candidate for the presidency might reinvigorate a slumping campaign by throwing addicts a lifeline, by not chipping away but rather taking a jackhammer to the old-fashioned idea that addicts are to be shamed and blamed and locked up, gives me great hope that we are on the verge of a paradigm shift in the treatment of this disease.

Glass Houses

In a recent appearance on CNN, Christie was asked how he would respond to people who say addicts deserve what they get.

"This can happen to anyone, regardless of your education level, regardless of your socioeconomic status. What we have to do is say, yes, it was a bad choice to use drugs ... but haven't all of us made bad choices in our lives? We're just fortunate it didn't involve an addiction to drugs or alcohol. It's a disease and we need to treat it."

Neuroscientist Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, takes it a step further. She calls addiction "a disease of free will." You see, Volkow's family, too, was touched by addiction. Her alcoholic grandfather killed himself in his despair at not being able to resist his strong urges to drink.

"Addiction is not just 'a disease of the brain,'" Volkow says, "but one in which the circuits that enable us to exert free will no longer function as they should. Drugs disrupt these circuits. Addicted people in my laboratory often say it's not even pleasurable," but that they just can't control it.

Volkow's view is shared, in one way or another, throughout most of the addiction treatment community. But it is rare for the discussion to come from the political stage, and particularly from the right side of the aisle. While the rhetoric from Democrats has generally been more treatment-friendly, though like-minded policy has not always followed, the GOP has typically favored punishment over rehab.

And Christie isn't the only GOP candidate who gets it. Jeb Bush recently told The Huffington Post that his daughter, Noelle, who struggled with drugs, "went through hell." Bush has said he would focus on recovery rather than incarceration if he's elected. Ted Cruz is also jumping on the bandwagon, calling addiction a "horrible disease." He lost his half-sister to drug and alcohol abuse. Carly Fiorina, who lost a stepdaughter to addiction, wants more money spent on addiction treatment and says, "drug addiction shouldn't be criminalized."

Yes, it appears actually caring about addicts, helping them, treating them as human beings who have made bad choices and gotten caught, is the bandwagon issue of 2015. Talk about a double-take.

New Face of Opioid Addiction

Christie has hit hard the "addiction can happen to anyone" refrain. We can see that just by looking at the families of these candidates. What are the odds that so many of them would be personally touched by addiction?

In a word, good.

Forty-four people in the United States die every day from overdosing on prescription drugs -- let alone illicit ones -- according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent research finds that nearly 90 percent of the people who used heroin for the first time in the last decade were white. In addition, the greatest increases have occurred in people with private insurance and higher incomes. With the exception of Ben Carson, the makeup of the field of GOP candidates for the White House lines up squarely within those demographics.

Yes, addiction can happen to anyone -- your neighbor, your mechanic, your accountant, even your grandmother. The governor has brought a voice to this debate that speaks to conservatives and liberals alike, a voice that may finally have addiction understood as a disease, not a moral failing.

What drug abusers deserve is the same thing smokers deserve. Help. A chance to live another day, whether the healing comes as the result of having a lung removed or treatment in rehab. Every life is indeed precious.

Bravo, governor.

Jason Powers, M.D., is the chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehabilitation program and The Right Step network of substance abuse treatment centers in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.