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Chris Christie's soft-on-drugs stance may be helping him in New Hampshire. Here's why.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

There's a surprising rising star in New Hampshire's first-in-the-country Republican primary: Chris Christie.

The New Jersey governor's rise — from around 3 percent in late September to 11.5 percent today, putting him at a statistical tie for second place in New Hampshire, according to Real Clear Politics's average of the polls — is drawing quite a bit of attention from Republican establishment types who want a non-Cruz, non-Donald Trump figure to stand behind. As Tim Carney wrote for the Washington Examiner, "Here's a scenario that strikes me as not crazy: Christie finishes third in Iowa, making him an attractive choice for anti-Cruz voters in New Hampshire, and for former Trump backers who now want an electable choice. This would put Christie in striking distance of a victory in New Hampshire."

But what, exactly, is driving Christie's rise over, say, Marco Rubio, whose numbers are relatively flat in New Hampshire? It may have to do with an issue that has been largely under-covered in the media and Republican debates so far: the opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic.

While opioid overdose deaths are a national issue, New England and New Hampshire in particular have been hit hard by the epidemic — to the point that 25 percent of New Hampshire voters now consider drug abuse the most important issue, topping jobs and the economy at 21 percent, according to an October survey by the TV station, WMUR, and University of New Hampshire.

Christie has been a strong voice on this issue since the beginning, and a video showing Christie talking about his support for a public health approach toward drug users — as opposed to the lock-them-up approach of the war on drugswent viral in November. This has put him in a particularly good spot in New Hampshire, and it's now showing in the polls.

There's still plenty of time for Christie's rise to go bust, especially if he doesn't do well in future debates or Iowa caucuses. But his rise says a lot about how the primary system — and its focus on New Hampshire and Iowa early on — can elevate a widespread but largely ignored issue to the national stage.

New Hampshire helped put the spotlight on an under-reported issue

America has an opioid problem. In 2014, more Americans died of general drug overdoses than any other year on record: more than 47,000 deaths in just one year, according to new federal data. This was largely driven by the recent rise in opioid painkiller and heroin overdoses, which caused nearly 29,000 of the 47,000 deaths.

This continued what's been by and large a growing problem in the past decade. Starting in the late 1990s, the number of people dying from opioid painkiller overdoses steadily rose, with nearly 19,000 deaths reported in 2014. What's worse, one study in JAMA Psychiatry found opioid painkiller use contributed to the rising use of heroin, an opioid that is deadlier, more addictive, and, in some cases, cheaper than painkillers, but can satisfy the same cravings that addicts get from other opioids like painkillers. (To some degree, the move to heroin is a result of policy: As state and federal governments have cracked down on excessive painkiller prescriptions, opioid users have resorted to heroin to satisfy their addiction.)

The epidemic has hit particularly hard in New Hampshire. In 2014, the state's opioid overdose death rate was 22.4 per 100,000 residents — the highest in the country after West Virginia. The national average was 9.

Since New Hampshire will be the first state to vote in the primaries (Iowa is caucusing, which is a bit different), this has put greater attention on the opioid epidemic. Hillary Clinton acknowledged as much earlier this year, saying that the feedback she heard in New Hampshire pushed her to release a $10 billion plan to combat drug abuse. Last week, CNN ran a lengthy segment arguing that New Hampshire's drug epidemic has turned into a 2016 issue. And for Christie, it may explain why he's rising in New Hampshire's polls — since he has been very vocal about the issue.

Chris Christie's soft stance on drugs

Chris Christie Makes Emotional Plea To Rethink Drug Addiction ...

"Somehow, if it's heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say, 'They decided it, they're getting what they deserved.'"(Read more here:

Posted by HuffPost Politics on Friday, October 30, 2015

Both on the campaign trail and as governor of New Jersey, Christie has taken a softer stance on nonviolent drug users than his tough-on-crime record as a former federal prosecutor may otherwise suggest.

In a New Hampshire town hall, Christie spoke about his mom getting treatment for lung cancer after decades of smoking — and the contradiction that seems to pose for drug policy. "Somehow, if it's heroin or cocaine or alcohol, we say, 'They decided it, they're getting what they deserved,'" Christie said, as Sam Wilkes and Scott Conroy reported for the Huffington Post.

Christie argued this needs to change, framing his support for treating drug use as a public health instead of a criminal justice issue as "pro-life." Addiction "can happen to anyone," he said. "So we need to start treating people in this country, not jailing them. We need to give them the tools they need to recover. Because every life is precious. Every life is an individual gift from God." (For Christie, this produces the benefit of not just being popular in New Hampshire, but presenting his stance in a conservative way.)

These are not just words for Christie. As Katie Zezima wrote in the Washington Post, as governor of New Jersey, Christie passed several measures encouraging a public health approach to drugs rather than a criminal justice strategy. For one, he approved drug courts that attempt to divert drug users to treatment and not jail or prison. He also eased restrictions on naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses, so family, friends, and police can better access and use it to save the life of someone who's overdosing.

Now, Christie has his limits. He has allowed prosecutors in New Jersey to go hard after drug dealers — in tacit support of the idea that drug traffickers should be dealt with harshly, although users should not. He has also harshly criticized marijuana legalization, warning Coloradans that he will enforce federal laws that ban pot: "If you're getting high in Colorado today, enjoy it… As of January 2017, I will enforce the federal laws."

Still, it cannot be overstated how big of a political shift Christie's laxer stance on drugs is from very recent times. A few decades ago, both parties overwhelmingly favored tough-on-crime approaches to fight drug use and abuse. In the 1980s, then-Sen. Joe Biden helped write and pass legislation that imposed strict mandatory minimum prison sentences for drug offenses, and President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law. A few years later, President George H.W. Bush held up a bag of crack cocaine during a TV broadcast from the Oval Office and vowed to escalate the war on drugs. And a few years after that, President Bill Clinton signed a crime law that encouraged states to expand prison sentences and policing.

(Race and class may play a role in the softer rhetoric: While previous drug epidemics that inspired a tough-on-crime approach — such as the crack cocaine epidemic — predominantly hit poor black people in cities, the opioid epidemic is more likely to hit middle-class white people in more rural and suburban areas.)

Nonetheless, the political shift embodied by Christie and other politicians, such as Hillary Clinton, is popular across the country: 67 percent of US adults say drug policy should focus on providing treatment, while just 26 percent say it should focus on prosecuting drug users, according to a 2014 survey from the Pew Research Center.

It's also, arguably, a necessary shift: According to 2014 federal data, at least 89 percent of people who meet the definition for a drug abuse disorder don't get treatment. (That's likely an underestimate: Federal household surveys leave out incarcerated and homeless individuals, who are more likely to have serious, untreated drug problems.) There are many reasons for this gap, including stigma against drug addicts and addiction treatment. But one key factor is that there simply aren't enough treatment options and programs out there — during President Barack Obama's visit to West Virginia, one of the most common complaints from families was that they had to wait months to get a family member into treatment.

So the polls and data are on the side of boosting public health efforts toward drugs. Given Christie's latest poll numbers in New Hampshire, his Republican rivals may soon wake up to the severity of the problem and where public opinion is going, and perhaps adopt a softer, more vocal approach to drugs to keep up.

Watch: How the DEA invented "narco-terrorism"