One of the most well-publicized aspects of the Reagan administration, “Just Say No” was an anti-drug campaign developed under the direction of the First Lady, Nancy Reagan, and it became one of her bigger contributions to her husband’s presidency in the 1980s. While the “Just Say No” campaign may have been intended to tackle the war on drugs in America, its message also was misleading, painting all addicts as criminals and all substances as evil.
Nancy Reagan first stated in 1981 that she wished to help educate the youth of America and play a role in bringing awareness about the dangers associated with drug abuse.
“As I’ve said many times, drug abuse knows no boundaries. It crosses all lines – geographical, racial, political, economic,” Nancy Reagan once said. “Not only can it tear down an entire nation, it also brings danger into the lives of our most precious resources: our children.”
While that may have been the intention, the “Just Say No” marketing campaign inherently targeted drugs and drug users. The simple, yet vague, message of “Just Say No” successfully grouped everything from alcohol to heroin to marijuana into a singular stereotype and implied that drug users were irresponsible.
History of “Just Say No”
The War on Drugs first began in the early 1970s under the Nixon presidency. In 1971, Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in the United States. Over the next decade, through the Nixon and Carter administrations, drugs were persecuted heavily.
However, usage of drugs was still high. It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan took office in 1980 that the problem truly made an appearance in the national spotlight.
It is tradition that First Ladies of the United States take-on one topic or issue the country faces during her time in the White House. For example, First Ladies Eleanor Carter focused on mental health, Barbara Bush examined literacy, and Michelle Obama brought awareness to child obesity and fitness. For the Reagan administration, Nancy Reagan chose to combat teen drug abuse.
The “Just Say No” movement first started in 1982. The phrase began when Nancy Reagan was doing a speaking tour and visited an elementary school. During the visit, she took questions from students. The Reagan Foundation recalls the moment.
“A little girl raised her hand,” she remembered, “and said, ‘Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?’ And I said, ‘Well, you just say ‘no.’”
This is how the movement began.
In the early and mid-1980s, to aid the anti-drug campaign, Nancy Reagan went on a press tour, appearing dozens of times to speak about the issue that was important to her. In 1984 alone she made 110 appearances and 14 anti-drug speeches.
Her efforts to curb school-age drug and alcohol abuse saw her travel through 65 cities across 33 states and even nine foreign countries. According to the Reagan Foundation, she also invited the spouses of 24 heads of state to a three-day, anti-drug forum in the United States to raise global awareness of the issue.
In 1986, President Reagan signed a proclamation that created the first official “Just Say No to Drugs Week.”
In September 1986, while First Lady Reagan was supporting the campaign, she spoke to the country during a televised address. Her speech focused on her time traveling for her anti-drug campaign, and what she believed was the best path forward for contributing to the anti-drug movement.
“For five years, I’ve been traveling across the country, learning and listening,” she said during the speech. “One of the most hopeful signs I’ve seen is the building of an essential new awareness of how terrible and threatening drug abuse is to our society. … 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.”
During the address she also said the line most commonly associated with the movement: “Say ‘yes’ to your life. And when it comes to drugs and alcohol, just say ‘no.’”
The movement gained nationwide media attention, even recruiting major pop culture figures to speak on the problem. Some major figures that appeared alongside Nancy Reagan and in other “Just Say No” campaigns included Whitney Houston, David Hasselhoff, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
By 1988, more than 12,000 “Just Say No” clubs had formed across the country and around the world; many clubs and organizations still remain in operation.
Similarly, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program was used alongside the “Just Say No” campaign to try to fortify the anti-drug message.
There are some criticisms about the Reagan administration and their effects on drug laws and incarceration during this time, as the anti-drug campaign was accompanied by aggressive policing and mandatory prison sentences for drug offenses.
During the Reagan administration, prison penalties for drug crimes skyrocketed and the trend has mostly continued today. Over 50% of prisoners in the U.S. prison system are jailed for drug offenses.
Much of the criticisms for the campaign, and laws that resulted from the campaign, also are focused around access to and education about treatment. Some believe that the laws led to the mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes, and that there was too much emphasis on deterrence tactics without focusing on drug treatment and substance abuse programs.
Effects of the Movement
According to the Reagan Foundation, one positive that came out of the anti-drug campaign was a drop in cocaine use among high school seniors. However, there is some evidence that this was declining before the movement began. Still, the “Just Say No” movement, despite its criticisms, may have been a supporting cause of this decline.
While the intentions of the “Just Say No” movement – healthier lives without troublesome addictions- were admirable, the approach may have been problematic and not as effective as possible.
In hindsight, the “Just Say No” movement may have been too simple. Rather than avoiding the issues of drugs altogether by just saying “no,” the campaign may have been more effective had it focused on actual education as to the dangers and effects that can come from chronic drug use.
Years after the start of “Just Say No,” numerous studies in the late 1990s and early 2000s looked at the effects of anti-drug marketing efforts and found that they weren’t as effective as they sought out to be.
One study from 2002 looked at the effectiveness of 30 different anti-drug public service announcements. It found that PSAs were generally unreliable when they focused on drug abstinence: “The most effective PSAs provided information about the negative consequences of drug use, whereas the least effective tended to focus on avoidance behaviors and on ‘just saying no.’”
According to a separate 2008 study that looked into anti-drug campaigns from 1999 to 2004, they concluded that anti-drug campaigns are not only unlikely to have any favorable effects, they may even have some delayed unfavorable effects. The study specifically looked at how exposure to these messages can influence behavior for marijuana: “Overall, the campaign was successful in achieving a high level of exposure to its messages; however, there is no evidence to support the claim that this exposure affected youths’ marijuana use as desired.”
While “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E. may not have had the desired effects, they also failed to acknowledge the dangers of one type of drug that has taken hold of our country in recent years. One of the major consequences of the drug campaign is that while it did go after major illicit drugs like heroin and cocaine, it ignored the dangers of prescription drugs, which is the primary problem of the drug epidemic in the nation today.
Currently, prescription drugs make up almost half of all drug deaths each year, leading to tens of thousands of deaths annually. Because “Just Say No” focused on drugs like heroin and marijuana and ignored the opportunity to talk about the dangers of pharmaceutical painkillers, prescription drugs have become wildly more popular in the United States.
Despite the lack of evidence that “Just Say No” was effective, it seems that the country may not have learned enough from the mistakes. In March of 2017, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke on the drug epidemic in the nation, citing Nancy Reagan’s campaign.
“I think we have too much of a tolerance for drug use ─ psychologically, politically, morally,” Sessions said. “We need to say, as Nancy Reagan said, ‘Just say no.'”
Organizations and movements like D.A.R.E. are still alive and well. However, there is a growing belief that the drug education culture needs an overhaul.
The Drug Policy Alliance, an organization that has come forward and said that drug abstinence programs aren’t effective, believes that changing drug education to a more honest approach, is scientifically accurate, and doesn’t exaggerate would be beneficial.
The Drug Policy Alliance worked to develop the Safety First education policy, a reality-based approach to teens and drugs.
“We designed this curriculum using a similar philosophy to modern sex education,” says Sasha Simon, DPA’s Safety First Program Manager. “Fundamental to our approach is harm reduction, which acknowledges that as much as we would like for young people not to use drugs, we know that some of them will. We want to give young people accurate information and concrete strategies to keep them safe.”
While independent organizations have taken steps to educate the youth on the negatives associated with drug use, the government has also taken specific measures to combat the opioid crisis. For instance, President Trump’s administration launched the Crisis Next Door drug campaign that aims to reduce the stigma associated with prescription drug addiction. The website allows people to post testimonies about their personal or extended experiences with prescription drugs.
In October, the president also signed the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act into law. The bipartisan bill aims to curb the opioid epidemic. The bill looks to expand treatment and education while increasing cooperation among government agencies to target the source of the opioid crisis.
However, like “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E., the effects of these efforts will not be seen or understood for the foreseeable future. Still, the acknowledgement and dedication to stopping this problem is progress and a step in the right direction.
Despite the good intentions, the “Just Say No” anti-drug marketing campaign started by Nancy Reagan may not have been as effective as it could have been. An abstinence-only approach coupled with the harsh drug penalties of the time focused more on punishment rather than treatment.
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