Speakeasy: Christie, Kennedy offer bipartisan blast at marijuana …

SpeakEasy is a running feature in NJBIZ in which we recap presentations given by key business leaders around the state. This report is based on remarks delivered by Gov. Chris Christie and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy at the New Jersey Hospital Association Mental Health Summit on May 1.

Gov. Chris Christie threw out his script, literally, while speaking on opioid addiction in front of a crowd of 200 on Monday at the annual New Jersey Hospital Association Mental Health Summit.

He followed Patrick Kennedy, the former Rhode Island Congressman and son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, who currently calls New Jersey home, in addressing the issue.

They are members of opposing political parties, but the Republican governor and former Democratic U.S. representative had the same messages: Marijuana legalization is bad, opioid addiction needs to be better understood by medical professionals and insurers are bad actors in the system.

Christie attacked a Democratic trio in state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, along with state Sen. Nick Scutari (D-Linden), saying that priority No. 1 under the Democrats would be to legalize marijuana in order for the state to earn $300 million — the same amount he is asking of the state’s largest insurer to fund the opioid addiction efforts — through taxes.

“This is the part that liberals love the most … we can tax it. Sweet Jesus, we can tax it. More money for us,” Christie said. “Let me tell you something, people — and I can say this now because I’m not running for anything again — $300 million is nothing. We have a $35.5 billion budget; $300 million is a rounding error. I’m sorry, it’s true.

“At the same time, the same people are unwilling to commit to forcing the monopolistic insurance company in this state (into) contributing $300 million in excess profits to expand drug treatment. How ironic would it be if these dopes actually legalized marijuana, and then take the $300 million they raised and put it towards drug treatment? Talk about chasing your tail.”

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy speaks at the summit.

Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy speaks at the summit. – (ANJALEE KHEMLANI)

Kennedy focused on marijuana as a gateway drug and the emergence of edibles and elixirs with key ingredient THC that could be dangerous in creating more addicts.

“Go to Washington or Colorado and see what they are selling in vending machines. I thought we had made progress against Big Tobacco” marketing to teens, Kennedy said. “But, now, they are greenlighting this addiction as somehow acceptable. If we keep marching down this road, then a decade from now we are going to be coming back and saying ‘How did we get here?’”

Especially as legalization funnels money into lobbying, which can then turn around and expand the legalization programs — following in the footsteps of alcohol and tobacco, which are both too powerful today, Kennedy said.

Christie also backed up the gateway drug concept by using statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse highlighting that teen marijuana users are 10 times more likely to use heroin.

The same Institute updated its information page addressing the gateway idea in April.

“These findings are consistent with the idea of marijuana as a ‘gateway drug.’ However, the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances,” according to the website. “It is important to note that other factors besides biological mechanisms, such as a person’s social environment, are also critical in a person’s risk for drug use.

“An alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis is that people who are more vulnerable to drug-taking are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs. Further research is needed to explore this question.”

A recent report in the Boston Globe highlighted the gateway concern, as the state of Massachusetts is one of the latest to tackle legalized marijuana.

The concern is one that has been around for years, and the Globe report said the issue was not one of marijuana being an addictive drug, but rather priming the brain, especially for those who are already predisposed to be addicted, to accept harder drugs.

Christie continued that he was sounding the alarm of the public health crisis on opiates and emphasizing he was the only thing that stood between legalized marijuana in the state for seven years.

“This is nothing more than … crazy liberals, who want to say everything is OK, people should be able to choose,” he said. “I stood up for this for seven years … send me a bill so I can veto it again.”

Kennedy also criticized the medical professionals sitting in the crowd, emphasizing the use of emergency room detoxification.

“Can you imagine that? Our medical system is advocating a non-evidence-based treatment modality for one of the biggest public health challenges of our time,” Kennedy said. “A lot of this is a no-brainer, folks. Just follow what the surgeon general recommends. Follow what the American Society for Addiction Treatment recommends. We’ll be saving tens of thousands of lives a year.”

At the root of the problem is the use of detoxification, sometimes following overdose reversal, without much follow-up after a patient walks out the door. This results in greater addiction because of the suddenness of the form of treatment, Kennedy said.

Christie said he has heard of people lying about suicidal thoughts after being reversed from an overdose before they got any kind of treatment.

Kennedy said the problem has been not treating the issue with the same urgency as the Zika virus had been treated.

“I say treat this like Zika virus,” he said. “Treat this like any other contagious illness, and you would have had hundreds of million thrown at this. But because our country still has this outdated cultural viewpoint that these are people who lack the willpower and are losers … it’s reinforced by a treatment model that is separate and unequal. “

After getting his mental health and addiction parity act passed, in the same bill whose language bailed out the banks in 2008, implementation has been elusive.

“We’ve spent the last eight years trying to get it implemented,” Kennedy said, adding that he understood President Barack Obama was trying to get insurers on board with Affordable Care Act, so he was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“He didn’t propose the final rules until literally the fourth quarter of his administration. In the last 4-5 months, he did a parity task force,” Kennedy said.

But with the change in administration, the work was halted, an exasperated Kennedy said.

“This has never been front and center despite the fact that, literally, our country’s life expectancy has been changed,” he said. “(Our country’s residents are) supposedly supposed to live longer because we have more biomedical research that is changing the survival rate of many illnesses. But yet, in spite of all that, our life expectancy as a country is being impacted by the fact that suicide is twice rate of homicide, overdose (leads to) car accidents. We are dying and have yet to put resources behind (addiction).”

This includes insurers denying covering treatment.

Christie recently signed into law a bill that would require insurers to cover six months of treatment, as well as limiting opioid prescriptions to five days, except for in the case of cancer patients and chronic pain patients.

The continuous denials inspired a parity registry that The Kennedy Forum has put together to gather consumers in each state with the support of the attorneys general.

The goal, he said, is to force the insurers to back down before they face a more empowered consumer base that could cost them far more money to battle.

And the threat of certain changes to the Affordable Care Act will only strengthen the need for the registry, Kennedy said.

“Obviously, there are many proposals within (American Health Care Act) ‘replace’ that are more displace,” he said. “They are all about ‘flexibility,’ which is a subterfuge to mandating. So, if you want cheaper insurance plans (they’ll) give you it but it won’t cover the illness you may have in your family. It’s discriminatory. You wouldn’t think about not covering cancer, but they are easily going to dismiss this because … we don’t have a strong political lobby and consumers are not out there shouting as the AIDS activists did a generation ago. We need to develop like-minded advocacy within the addiction and recovery community.”

“The way we are going to get this to change is the way civil rights workers got the Civil Rights Act,” he said.

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