Drug War

Just Say No to Nancy Reagan's 'Outspoken Intolerance'

The former first lady, who died this week, was wedded to repressive drug policies that hurt many innocent people.



Nancy Reagan, who died this week, was strongly identified with the "Just Say No" movement, which even critics of the war on drugs tend to remember as more goofy than menacing. But as I show in my latest Forbes column, the former first lady demanded that everyone—not just schoolchildren—parrot her all-or-nothing, black-and-white approach to drugs, and her activism was inextricably tied to unabashedly repressive policies aimed at creating the "atmosphere of intolerance" she hoped would lead to a "drug-free society":

"If you asked anyone in America today what Nancy Reagan does," the first lady's former press secretary, Sheila Tate, told the Associated Press in 1986, "they'd say she was involved in fighting drugs. She owns that issue now….It's what she'll be remembered for."

Tate surely was right about that. Lady Bird Johnson had highway beautification, Laura Bush had literacy, and Michelle Obama has fitness. But probably no first lady in history has been as strongly identified with a cause as Nancy Reagan, who died on Sunday. In pursuit of "a drug-free society," she visited schools and treatment centers throughout the country, led thousands of schoolchildren in drug-free pledges, delivered dozens of speeches, gave more than 100 interviews, filmed PSAs with movie stars such as Clint Eastwood, co-hosted Good Morning America, and did cameo appearances on Diff'rent Strokes and Dynasty. She even sat on Mr. T's lap.

"If you even save one life," the first lady liked to say, "it's worth it." But there is no evidence that her crusade saved anyone's life, or even stopped people from using drugs. Although drug use, as measured by government-commissioned surveys, fell during the 1980s, that trend began years before Nancy Reagan launched her "Just Say No" campaign. As the drug policy historian David Musto observed in a 1986 interview with the Los Angeles Times, the first lady was "responding to a shift in attitude toward drugs in the U.S." that was already under way when Ronald Reagan took office. "There is little research to chart the effectiveness of marketing offensives like 'Life Abuse' and 'Just Say No,'" the Times reported in 1988. "But the consensus seems to be that they can't hurt."

Contrary to that consensus, Nancy Reagan's anti-drug activism was not just silly or ineffectual. It was fundamentally misguided, avowedly intolerant, and unabashedly repressive, promoting violence as a response to peaceful activities that violate no one's rights. It reinforced misconceptions about drug use that shaped public policy for decades, leading to millions of unjustified arrests and prison sentences. While I have no doubt that Reagan was genuinely moved by the plight of drug addicts and sincerely motivated by a desire to help children avoid that fate, the policies she supported have hurt a lot of innocent people. Whether she saved lives is doubtful, but she helped ruin many through her influence on her husband and the general public.

Read the whole thing.

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  1. To be clear: at the time, “Just Say No” was not attacked for being anti-drug. Rather, Nancy Reagan was attacked for being naive, ignorant, heartless and, indeed, racist enough to claim that drug use was a matter of individual choice that could be fought without billions in federal programs to fight the “root causes” of the “drug epidemic.” The War on Drugs was bipartisan, and each side used it to further its own agenda.

    1. But she was a republican who said something bad about drugs, plus she just died. She must be vilified!

    2. Who gives a fuck? She promoted the disastrous war on drugs, and in doing so promoted throwing people in cages for non-violent personal and consensual activity. Fuck her.

      Jesus Christ you fucking people cannot get out of your fucking retarded TEAM binary, can you. Pathetic.

      1. No I am not. I am simply pointing out what I said at the end of my comment: that the war on drugs was bipartisan. How is that being “team binary.”? I am saying the exact opposite

        1. Who does Number 2 work for?

          1. Questions are a burden to others, answers a prison for oneself

            1. Good line. Don’t let the Groupthink thugs bully you … especially the “team binary” dude who’s suffers severe denial and doesn’t even know what the term means. (lol)

      2. Who gives a fuck? She promoted the disastrous war on drugs, and in doing so promoted throwing people in cages for non-violent personal and consensual activity. Fuck her.

        She promoted “saying no” to drugs, you brainwashed dumbfuck.
        A related D.A.R.E program consisted of …. LECTURES IN SCHOOLS .(OMG)

        It was the LEAST offensive anti-drug effort since Eisenhower formed a cabinet committee to eliminate drug use, and Nixon launched the “War on Drugs.” … says this 50+ year pot smoker (with a brain).

        The major “criminal” effort was launched by Bush1.

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  2. OT: Prime Minister Zoolander shows his inner Thomas Friedman: http://www.cbc.ca/beta/news/ca…..-1.2421351

    1. I’m maybe gonna hold off on making fun of the Canadian’s choice in leaders until I see who we elect as President later this year.

        1. As I’m sure will be the case.

        2. We can will both be wrong.

          Repaired for ye.

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  3. Great. Now you just gave Michelle idea about making sure everyone eats a turnip.

    1. ideas

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  4. In pursuit of “a drug-free society,” she visited schools and treatment centers throughout the country, led thousands of schoolchildren in drug-free pledges, delivered dozens of speeches

    I don’t understand why more people aren’t against government school when the state can tell you, you have to pay us money for schools, you have to send your kids to school, and we can indoctrinate them however we see fit. But as far as I can tell, people love “free school”.

    1. Oh yes they do because they fear the alternative. Everyone starving on the street without an education!

    2. I don’t understand why more people aren’t against government schools …. I don’t understand why people quote one topic … to then talk about a totally unrelated topic … which confuses the shit our of people.

      The shocking LECTURES (gasp) were also promoted in private and religious schools. I was a school board member at the time, fought for and finally won the right to give the opposite side (which I also did in my campaign)
      Brains beat hysteria every time. You should consider laughing at the words you quoted,

  5. Here we are 30 years later with a GOP presidential presumptive nominee that has spent 20+ years calling for the legalization of all drugs.

    1. You mean the guy who recently said this?

      During the CPAC conference in June, Trump was asked about Colorado’s legalization and responded: “I say it’s bad. Medical marijuana is another thing, but I think it’s bad, and I feel strongly about it.”

      1. Are you on drugs yourself? He meant Rand Paul. Made no sense, but meant Rand Paul.

  6. No new info here and too soon to speak ill of the dead.

    1. Agreed.

      Nancy’s principal cause was Ronnie.

  7. Fill in the blank!

    “You cannot separate ______ that ‘doesn’t hurt anybody’ from ______ that kills. They are ethically identical?the only difference is time and luck.”

    I’ll start with “a campaign promise”.

  8. You know, telling kids to not do drugs is not a bad idea.

    We can legalize a lot of illegal drugs, but that doesn’t mean we need to encourage people to use them. In most cases people are better off not using.

    However the case that making things people may choose to do, even if bad for them, illegal can have huge consequences (see prohibitions encouragement of organized crime) is true as well.

    1. ^This

      There’s a big difference between encouraging someone not to do something and making it illegal.

      1. There’s a big difference between encouraging someone not to do something and making it illegal.

        Who explains that to Jacob Sullum. Ooops, too late. 🙁

  9. Sullum has gone off the rails totally. More anti-Reagan bullshit, related to the Paulista-Cult-is libertarian propaganda.

    “Just Say No” — along with the D.A.R.E lectures at schools were PERSUASION (gasp), the LEAST offensive component of the “War on Drugs” which began when Nixon launched the DEA, tracing to Eisenhower’s cabinet-level committee to eliminate drug addiction. The worst “criminal” attack came under Bush1’s explicit goal to reduce “addiction” by 1/3.

    “Just Say No” was based on hysteria, but so is Sullum’s hissy fit over telling kids to say “No” (gasp)
    I’ve been publicly anti-drug-war for over 50 years, and a Reason reader since its beginning, but Reason Online is now a major obstacle to libertarianism …. to the libertarian label being rejected by 91% of libertarians … by pandering to the Cult instead of the Movement.

    But we have a “libertarian moment” because

    1) “libertarianish” socons support nonintervention militarily … but forced intervention into private lives of Americans by intentionally violating the Constitution.
    2) After 40 years the libertarian establishment has NOTHING for today’s collapse of both parties, and is now as bureaucratic as the major party establishments.
    3) We have NOTHING for the economy, taxes, healthcare or governance, other than slogans and buzzwords.

    If that’s a libertarian moment, then Auschwitz was a Jewish moment.
    And now yet another new low.

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