(CNN) – Republican Gov. Chris Christie teamed up with former Democratic Gov. Jim McGreevey to talk about drug addiction on Thursday, the same day Christie signed a bill aimed to improve treatment programs in New Jersey correctional facilities and county jails.
While Christie has frequently said that drug and alcohol abuse is an issue that has touched his personal life, he elaborated further Thursday saying he recently lost a longtime and "dear" friend to addiction.
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"I could tell you that as we all stood around at his wake at 52 years old, that all of us were in a sense at the same moment of both disbelief and inevitability," he said. "I said to my wife that night, 'Is it possible to be completely stunned and not the least bit surprised at the same time?' And I can tell you from just having experienced this, it is absolutely possible."
Christie made his comments in a panel discussion at the "Prisoner Re-entry: Breaking the Cycle Conference" in Jersey City.
The Republican governor said he and others tried to reach out to his friend for nearly a decade, but the individual continued to struggle.
"I was completely stunned that a guy who had been a dear friend of mine for 30 years was laying there in that coffin because he couldn't deal with the illness that he had," Christie said.
The governor has long stressed a need to break the stigma of drug addiction and boost programs to rehabilitate those struggling with drug abuse.
At his State of the State address in January, Christie introduced a member of the audience named Craig Hanlon, who he said was a drug addict at the age of 16. He went through rehab, finished high school, went to college and ultimately got a law degree. Hanlon later worked for Christie when Christie served as the U.S. Attorney in New Jersey.
"If you need proof that reclaiming a life is possible and that every life has precious value, then that proof is standing before you today," he said.
Christie also favors rehabilitation over incarceration in most cases involving nonviolent drug convictions, saying it's fiscally and morally the right thing to do, even if it means fewer jobs at prisons and other institutions.
"These are not folks who are in general a threat to the health and safety of the citizens in their neighborhoods," he said Thursday. "You just are making people further and further depressed the more you keep them in prison."
Christie's administration also recently launched a pilot program in two counties that will equip first responders to administer the antidote Narcan to those experiencing an overdose of heroin or prescription narcotic, a problem that's become what Christie calls an "epidemic" in New Jersey.
Christie, who's thinking about running for president in 2016, has repeatedly made a passionate plea for better drug rehab programs at his weekly town halls, and reiterated Thursday the issue should be one that his fellow Republicans support.
"I say to them you know, it's great to be pro-life but you need to be pro-life after they get out of the womb too. We have to be pro-life all the way along," he said. "If we believe in the sanctity of life, then we need to believe in how life is precious for every moment that God gives us. Not only the really good moments, but the really tough moments too."
He also argued the issue should be considered nonpartisan.
"I know as many drug addicted Republicans as I know drug addicted Democrats. It just is what it is," he said. "Because alcohol, prescription drugs, heroin, cocaine, they don't ask you for your party registration card when the drug dealer is selling it to you."
Christie praised McGreevey, who was moderating the discussion, saying one of the main reasons he decided to speak at the event Thursday was because he wants McGreevey to "continue to be a leader in this state on issues that he's passionate about."
In 2004, McGreevey resigned halfway through his term as governor after admitting to an extramarital affair with a male staffer. He was hired last year by the mayor of Jersey City to oversee the city's effort to guide former prison inmates back into the workforce.
McGreevey returned the praise. "Obviously I've had my own challenges in life, and there are few people who have been as decent and kind and compassionate and good as Chris Christie."
On a separate note, Paul Fishman, the U.S. Attorney who is investigating Christie's administration over the George Washington Bridge scandal, spoke at the same event Thursday, but he and Christie did not cross paths.
CNN's Steve Kastenbaum contributed to this report.