Drug War

The Darker Side of 'Just Say No'

Nancy Reagan demanded that everyone-not just schoolchildren-parrot her all-or-nothing, black-and-white approach to drugs.

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Wikipedia

"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 last week. 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."

White House

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.

According to the 1984 biography Nancy Reagan: The Woman Behind the Man, the first lady's anti-drug crusade grew out of a 1982 exchange with a student at Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland. The girl asked what she should do if someone offered her drugs, and Reagan replied, "Just say no." That offhand remark inspired local activists to start Just Say No clubs, thousands of which were eventually formed across the United States and around the world.

Reagan, who became the honorary chairwoman of the clubs' umbrella organization, the Just Say No Foundation, traveled the country, urging children to do what the group's name said. She held anti-drug rallies at the White House featuring thousands of kids in green "Just Say No" T-shirts screaming "JUST SAY NO!" at the top of their lungs. Kids across the country filled out pledge cards, released "Just Say No" balloons, and wrapped giant red ribbons around their schools.

The basic idea underlying these rituals of abstinence was that kids use drugs because of peer pressure, which can be overcome by what Reagan called "anti-peer" pressure. This tactic of fighting conformity with conformity was reflected in the lyrics of a song used in an anti-drug ad: "You don't have to be part of the crowd. Be who you are, and stand up proud. Say no. Just say no."

The idea that joining mass pledges of abstinence is the best way to be yourself and stand apart from the crowd is rather counterintuitive. It reminds me of that scene in Life of Brian where the accidental messiah of the title tells a throng of followers, "You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!" They reply in unison, "Yes! We're all individuals!"

One problem with this approach is that it exaggerates the prevalence of drug use. According to the Monitoring the Future Study, marijuana use among high school students peaked in 1979, when 51% of seniors reported smoking pot in the previous year. By the early 1980s, that figure had dropped to about 40%, and no doubt it was substantially lower among the younger students who were the targets of Just Say No. "Everybody doesn't do it," Reagan would tell schoolchildren. But if you tell kids saying no requires courage and will make them stand out from the crowd, you are falsely implying that drug use is the norm among their peers, a misimpression that encourages experimentation.

White House

The overemphasis on peer pressure also discounts the real reasons people use drugs. "It's not fun," Reagan insisted, which surely ranks as one of the biggest lies ever told by a first lady. Of course drugs are fun; that is why people like them so much. Anyone who denies this obvious fact instantly loses any credibility on the subject among kids who have any experience with it, whether direct or indirect.

Likewise anyone who insists that all drug use is potentially deadly and refuses to distinguish between casual use and addiction. "You cannot separate so-called polite drug use at a chic party from drug use in a back alley," Reagan wrote in a 1986 Washington Post op-ed piece. "They are morally equal. You cannot separate drug use that 'doesn't hurt anybody' from drug use that kills. They are ethically identical—the only difference is time and luck." She thus denied the reality that the vast majority of illegal drug users, like the vast majority of drinkers, neither become addicted nor cause serious harm to themselves or anyone else.

Reagan, who reprimanded TV and film producers for depicting drug use as anything other than a life-endangering mistake, demanded that everyone—not just schoolchildren—parrot her all-or-nothing, black-and-white approach to drugs. "We must create an atmosphere of intolerance for drug use in this country," she wrote in the Post. "Each of us has an obligation to take an individual stand against drugs. Each of us has a responsibility to be intolerant of drug use anywhere, anytime, by anybody." 

Two months later, the first lady appeared on television with her husband, who declared "another war for our freedom," a campaign that would include widespread drug testing, stepped-up interdiction efforts, a dramatic increase in drug arrests, and mandatory minimum sentences—all at a time when illegal drug use was declining. "There's no moral middle ground," Nancy Reagan declared when it was her turn to speak. "Indifference is not an option. We want you to help us create an outspoken intolerance for drug use. For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs."

Wikipedia

Lest you misunderstand, the unyielding and inflexible intolerance Nancy Reagan advocated was not limited to scolding and shunning. "To get serious about stopping illegal drugs," she said in her 1988 speech at the United Nations, "means confronting all those citizens who use drugs." She regretted that "it is often easier to make strong speeches about foreign drug lords or drug smugglers than to arrest a pair of Wall Street investment bankers buying cocaine on their lunch break." She warned that "if we lack the will to fully mobilize the forces of law in our own country to arrest and punish drug users, if we cannot stem the American demand for drugs, then there will be little hope of preventing foreign drug producers from fulfilling that demand." Such a crackdown would be just, she argued, because every drug user is "an accomplice to every criminal act, every murder, every terrorist attack carried out by the narcotics syndicates."

As usual, Reagan ignored the government's role in fostering violence by creating a black market in which there is no legal way to resolve disputes. She dismissed opponents of prohibition as "a few voices on the fringes," saying, "I do not believe the American people will ever allow the legalization of drugs in our country. The consensus against drugs in the United States has never been stronger."

While Reagan spoke, The Washington Post reported, Secretary of State George Shultz "sat directly behind her." When she finished, he "leaned forward and patted her shoulder," while "she reached back and took his hand."

A year later, after he left office, Shultz stopped patting Nancy Reagan's shoulder. "It seems to me we're not really going to get anywhere until we can take the criminality out of the drug business and the incentives for criminality out of it," the MIT-trained economist said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. "Frankly, the only way I can think of to accomplish this is to make it possible for addicts to buy drugs at some regulated place at a price that approximates their cost….We need at least to consider and examine forms of controlled legalization of drugs."

Shultz remains a prominent critic of the war on drugs that Nancy Reagan championed, saying possession of drugs for personal use should be decriminalized. As for "the American people," whose support Reagan took for granted, 58 percent of them think marijuana should be legal, according to the latest Gallup poll, up from 23 percent in 1985. Tolerance seems to be winning, no thanks to Nancy Reagan.

This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.

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58 responses to “The Darker Side of 'Just Say No'

  1. You cannot separate so-called polite drug use at a chic party from drug use in a back alley,…They are morally equal.

    True. Morally neutral.

    1. You can not separate so-called polite cocktail drinking at a chic part from rotgut drinking in a back alley, . . . They are morally equal.

      You can not separate so-called intellectual discourse while drinking coffee at a chic coffeehouse from drinking drip brew in a back alley, . . . They are morally equal.

      You can not separate so-called polite tobacco use in a chic ceremony from smoking in a back alley, . . . They are morally equal.

      1. Hey,my scotch and cigars are not the same thing,because ‘good’ people use them.They don’t go out and deflower our women.Now,those damn bourbon drinkers,that’s another story.

      2. Stop back alley discrimination NOW

  2. “Peer pressure” is really a big joke. The drug addict will insist he starting doing drugs only because his friends pressured him into it – an unsuspecting victim of the ‘brain disease characterized by denial’ – and then later claim to have been a ‘very popular’ drug dealer. Well that’s having your cake and eating it too. (Just go to your local AA/NA meeting to see this for yourself.) Nancy was a patsy for Mel Sembler’s Straight Inc abusive teen rehab industry, which was later exposed by Maia Szalavitz. (And which later became Pheonix House, and Sembler was also a main funder of the Bushes including Jeb! – so much interesting history there, I could go on.)

    “Chasing the Scream” by Johann Hari is a great book on the history of drug prohibition and he actually delves into the drug underworld to expose the true dynamic.

    Government operates by making things illegal and then prosecuting the exchange of the ‘evil’ contraband (including speech itself). It’s pretty funny how we all fall for it.

  3. You know it is possible to be a libertarian and believe that drugs should be legal AND that people would be better off not using them.

    1. Drugs are okay as long as they are organic. Seriously, if drug prohibitionists seriously wanted to end Cannabis consumption, they should secretly fund Monsanto to develop a GMO ‘weed’ and everybody knows that once Monsanto markets any new GMO seed, it is completely impossible to find the seeds it replaced. Indisputable fact.
      Pot smokers would be so scared of the new weed they would switch to eating kale and edamame and stuff like that.

      1. You lost me at Organic. All I see is “EVIL GMO” in your post and realize you’re dumb.

        (insert Cartman voice): No One Cares Hippy

        1. never mind. satire is hard like math.

        2. I think your sarcasm detector needs some adjustment

          1. Sarcasm detectors are for damn dirty hippies.

        3. I’m amazed at the amount of sarcasm obtuseness ’round these parts of late. Ya even said your name was jester

      2. Something tells me GMO weed is on the horizon.

    2. Yes.

      I don’t believe that Sullum is saying otherwise.

      Unfortunately *Reagan* and the prohibition industry she hitched her wagon on to – they *don’t*.

    3. Yeah. That’s what really bothers me about the seemingly mainstream libertarian position on drugs. It’s not so much that they make arguments for legalization on constitutional grounds, but rather the arguments cross over into active advocacy for drug use. Which is something I cannot get behind at all.

      Nothing is going to convince me that the dangers of heroin are over-exaggerated. Or that crack can be smoked responsibly by productive members of society. Or that habitual pot use doesn’t have any side effects.

      Drugs should probably be legal in an ideal society. But we are FAR from that society, and before we legalize drugs I think we really must get rid of socialized healthcare and welfare FIRST. Because you can’t claim the personal responsibility argument on drug use when addicts will have taxpayer-funded treatment and rehab to fall back on. Knowing that you won’t be financially liable when you lose your job or have to hospitalize yourself for your addiction totally negates the concept of personal responsibility.

  4. I’ve never intentionally listened to anything said by any “First Lady”. Marrying guys who eventually become President doesn’t make them smart or wise.

    1. Nancy was the epitome of the neighborhood busybody who should never be anywhere near power.

      1. So, like every other First Lady I can remember?

    2. A first lady should be quiet,stay in the back ground and tend to the kitchen and cleaning staff.Now if Bill gets in there,that may be a problem.

      1. Oh, to be sure, Bill will *attend to the kitchen and cleaning staff*.

        1. A first lady’s prime job (especially when married to the likes of Bill Clinton or JFK) should be to focus entirely on lining up an endless supply of good-looking young sluts, to the point that her husband is TOO DAMNED BUSY FUCKING HIS BALLS OFF to doing much of anything else to fuck with the rest of us! More Presidential Sluts for freedom from Government Almighty, I say!

  5. “If you even save one life,” the first lady liked to say, “it’s worth it.”

    Such a crackdown would be just, she argued, because every drug user is “an accomplice to every criminal act, every murder, every terrorist attack carried out by the narcotics syndicates.”

    Up yours Nancy. You feigned to care for Americans while simultaneously condemning them. How many lives did you claim as an indirect effect of your war? How many violations of liberty were you an accomplice to?

    1. If a few lives were sacrificed for this prohibition, would it be worth it?

  6. In pursuit of “a drug-free society,” all coffee shops will be closed.

    1. They mean ‘except for good drugs we use,like wine and gin’.

  7. Just Say No to alcohol.

  8. “Just Say No” was aimed primarily at children and adolescents, and Nancy Reagan was right: they really shouldn’t do drugs, and selling drugs to them really should be a crime.

    1. And yet they were locking up adults in droves.

    2. You know how we make sure children have a hard time getting alcohol? By legalizing the stuff, putting it in stores and requiring people show ID to buy it. Not entirely sure why marijuana and cocaine should be treated differently. Instead, we have this policy of throwing everybody in jail who is involved in the production and sale.

      1. back in the 70’s when I was a teen it was far easier to get any drug than it was to get alcohol.
        that said just because some people said “just say no” didn’t work others have disagreed with that assessment. And every parent tries to teach their kids to “just say no”.

      2. That’s true. The main attraction of dealing drugs is that it offers an end run around laws forbidding minors to work, and youth offers child-entrepreneurs protection from enforcement thugs. All over the world the police confiscate whatever is banned, hand it to kids to sell and make undeclared cash income. The cops also know how to steer the kids to where they can find customers. This is the whole point of criminalization.

  9. Yes, the War on Drugs would be over had Nancy Reagan not beamed her mind control rays on the population.

    1. The Reagans’ control of the Republican Party is still powerful…

      1. By high frequency waves emanating from Ronald’s grave, no doubt.

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  12. So…….Reason is doing this article why? Nancy is 94, dead, and hasn’t been relevant in a very long time. And the “just say no” movement has also not been relevant in a very long time. Where are my 3-5 Trump bashing articles this morning? Hmmm? WHERE THE HELL ARE THEY?

    1. Because they’re obsessed with drugs and video games. I like reading Reason, but they’re like Peter Pan…they never grow up.

  13. My favorite Nancy Reagan Video

    https://youtu.be/f5uJP6yDtkM – under two minutes.

    She shows up at about 1:15

  14. wether you love her or hate here everybody tries to teach their kids to say ‘NO” maybe its time for Reason to let the old lady go and focus on how to turn the laws around. bashing old dead people never moves a cause forward. and people talk about the hate spewed by Trump I hear similar hate from the liberals towards anyone that won’t toe the line and is rich and/or white and Reason just talks hate about everyone else and acting acting like they are the noble ones because they were left out of all important parties. its easy to judge others and then do nothing. time to interact positively not react negatively. thats my new philosophy

  15. How about “she was a product of her time” she and millions before her had a problem with people loosing control of themselves….

    I mean I am pretty sure she was not a hedonist.

    DPB

  16. Give it a break…..It was just a saying – a guideline –
    a Rule of Life so to speak such as stoves are hot, unless they’re not.
    You’re being a Jerk!

  17. Well it is true that drugs aren’t quite as fun as they’re commonly believed to be. That’s actually part of the propaganda: the idea that drug use is SO rewarding psychologically that you’ll never want to do anything else.

  18. There are more to drugs than just pot. You know people use drugs to rape women?

    I would tell my kid not to do dangerous illegal drugs, including marijuana. I would even advise him against smoking, which is legal but is a proven source of cancer. There’s nothing insidious about telling young children to be wary of acts of vice that could ruin their lives. Would you seriously urge your 3 year old kid to consider a career in gambling or prostitution, even if there are compelling arguments for consenting acts to be legal?

    People thrown in jail (federal) for simply owning marijuana make up less than 1% of the prison population. The police will have to crack down on unauthorized street dealers or users even after legalization. Ensuring that police act with discretion goes beyond just drug wars.

    1. *ahem*
      Cannabis isn’t dangerous. . . illegal but less dangerous than water or aspirin.

    2. Ensuring that police act with discretion goes beyond just drug wars.

      I CAN’T BREATHE…

  19. Disgusting article, truly. Why didn’t you write this crap long before the woman was dead, huh? Your precious desire to have your drugs precludes decency and respect for someone who did good her whole life, but you didn’t like her slogan so you have to smear her name now. Pathetic.

    1. Gosh. So after I’m dead everyone will have to agree with what I think–or at least not disagree?

  20. If you’re saying “No” to drugs, you’re talking to drugs.
    If you’re talking to drugs it’s almost certain that you are, in fact, on drugs.

  21. Much as I disagree with prohibition, and mindful of its presence overarching the economic disaster foreshadowed by the market crash of 1987, there may have been some method to the madness. Prohibitionism was the brainchild of what socialists call the “religious right.” There is no denying that it opened up opportunities for Soviet Socialist sovereign powers to profit by moving drugs for the U.S. market–reason enough for repeal right there. The economic effect of Reagan prohibitionism followed by Bush’s asset-forfeiture and death-sentence continuation on Latin America’s economies is as clear a record of the destructive effect of coercive market distortions as any libertarian economist could ask for.

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