Vanessa

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Former Integrity House Consumer Vanessa Vitolo talks with Governor Chris Christie during a roundtable discussion on drug addiction and recovery while at Integrity House in Newark, N.J. on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017.
Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Last week was the opening week of NBA basketball, and I was glued to the couch watching the 76ers play the Raptors in Toronto. One of the best parts about the first two weeks of the season is that the NBA League Pass is free, so I can get the local broadcast of my family’s teams all the way out here in Colorado.

I love local broadcasts. In part because it’s fun to hear an announcer who is also an unabashed super-fan narrate a game, but mostly I love them for the local commercials. Watching the hometown used car salesman or mattress slinger tout their products fills me with grand appreciation for the nuances of our micro-cultures. Generally, they amuse me, but that day in between the 76ers and the Raptors’ jump shots, I saw one that made my jaw hit the floor.

There on the screen was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, standing next to a woman who, according to the text hovering beneath her, was Vanessa, labeled a “recovering heroin addict.” As if two players on the same team, they talked together about the opioid epidemic now facing New Jersey (perhaps the state hardest hit by the crisis) and encouraged viewers who needed help to call 1-844-REACH-NJ, the hotline for the state’s addiction task force.

From politicians interested in repealing prohibition (which Christie is not), such sentiments are nothing new, but even for them it would be near political suicide to stand next to a heroin addict in a commercial airing during a highly watched NBA game.

It’s not that it shouldn’t happen, just that it doesn’t, and up until that moment I didn’t think it possible for such a juxtaposition to exist within the framework of criminalization. The rhetoric of prohibition requires a set cast of villains — the evil substance, the demonic pusher, the morally implicit user — in order to paint its version of a good, drug-free world.

That’s because in order to buy into a set of policies that lock drug users up, we need to believe they deserve to be in prison.

And, just to be clear, Christie’s Reach NJ program does nothing to change or challenge prohibition. It merely redirects drug criminals through drug court instead of probation (although about 50 percent of enrollees end up in prison when they fail their probation) in what he says is an attempt to support an addict and save their life rather than punishing them.

Reach NJ is a major point in Christie’s political portfolio and a behemoth effort on behalf of his state to address the ever-rising threat posed by opioids. It houses a four-pronged program — a mandatory drug court to treat offenders, recovery coach programs, funding to treat overdoses, and it puts limits on opioid prescriptions (including a prescription monitoring program). Since its inception in 2014, it has not only received broad bipartisan support at the state level, but also federally, as it earned Christie the chair position on Trump’s “opioid commission.”

Critics of the program, however, call it a waving hand meant to redirect public attention while even more freedoms are stripped from the inner city population — those not most likely to use drugs, but the most likely to be arrested and convicted for use. And, according to research conducted by the Drug Policy Alliance, drug courts are a paradoxical mix of treatment and punishment that do not reduce incarceration, improve public safety or save money when compared to the wholly punitive model they seek to replace.

This week (in a long overdue acknowledgement of the crisis claiming more than 50,000 American lives a year) President Trump plans to declare the opioid epidemic a national emergency. When he does so, it is Christie’s Reach NJ that will be used as a model for the national plan of attack, and it will be Vanessa who will champion the campaign.

Vanessa, side by side with Governor Christie, smiling, the champion of an emerging era of drug policy. 

Nice to meet you, Vanessa Vitolo, tell us a little more about yourself.

According to her, she was raised in a small town with good parents. She was a cheerleader in high school and in a sorority in college. She was happy and doing just fine until, one day, she got hurt and received a prescription of opioids from her doctor. Before she emptied the first bottle, she was addicted.

Soon, she was homeless because, she says, it was easier to get drugs while living on the street. Then one day she realized she needed help and went to drug court, and it “saved her life.”

“I mean, look at me, I’m sitting across the table from you,” she said in March of this year when giving testimony at a listening session on opioids and drug abuse, seated directly across the table from Governor Christie, President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

After her tear-filled testimony, Trump is quick to interject: “And what did your parents say during this whole process? Because honestly, I am looking at you and you are like… all-American. Perfect. You are a perfect person, and I am saying it’s hard to believe you were living on the streets.”

Maybe it shouldn’t have shocked me as much as it did to see Christie standing next to Vanessa because Trump’s question didn’t surprise me at all. Through the eyes of a “perfect,” “all American” woman, surely the political establishment is willing to concede the possibility of faultlessness in drug addiction, especially if it started innocently enough, in a doctor’s office. As for the rest of us…