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Just Say No may have been intended to help solve the drug crisis in America, but the message also sowed confusion, painting all addicts as criminals and all substances as evil. Learn more about the Reagan administration’s approach to the War on Drugs.

One of the most well-publicized aspects of the Reagan Administration in the 1980’s actually came from the First Lady. One of Nancy Reagan’s contributions to her husband’s presidency was her anti-drug campaign known simply as Just Say No. Nancy Reagan first stated in 1981 that she wished to help educate the youth and play a role in bringing awareness about 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 resource our children.”

Under the Just Say No movement, the Reagan administration started a drug abstinence marketing campaign that targeted drugs and drug users, painting them as something that should be avoided at all costs. The simple, yet vague, message successfully grouped up everything from alcohol to heroin to marijuana into a one big boogeyman that everyone should stay away from.


History of Just Say No

A photo of Nancy Reagan at a Just Say No rally

Just say no, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons


The War on Drugs first began in the early 1970’s 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 in the United States were persecuted heavily.

However, usage of drugs was still high, it wasn’t until Ronald Reagan took office in 1980 that the problem came more into the national spotlight.

It is tradition that First Ladies of the United States take on one topic or issue the country faces during their time in the White House. For example, Eleanor Carter focused on mental health, Barbara Bush looked at literacy in the country and Michelle Obama helped with 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 1980’s 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 she 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, there were more than 12,000 Just Say No clubs that 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., was being used alongside the Just Say No Campaign to try to fortify the anti-drug message.

D.A.R.E. was started in 1983, shortly after the Just Say No campaign began. It started as a partnership between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District.



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 percent of prisoners in the United States prison system are jailed for drug offenses.

Much of the criticism for the campaign and laws that resulted from the campaign are focused around the idea of treatment. Some believe that the laws led to the mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes that is still prevalent today and that there was too much emphasis on deterrence tactics without focusing on drug treatment and substance abuse programs.


Effects of the Movement

Nancy Reagan sitting with children at a Just Say No rally
White House Photographic OfficeNancy Reagan with Just Say No kids, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons


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 supporting cause of this decline.

While the intentions of the Just Say No movement, healthier lives without troublesome addictions that don’t allow for the realization of someone’s full potential, 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 issue 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 1990’s and early 2000’s 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 in 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.


Current Efforts

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 kicking, however, there is a growing belief in some parts of the country 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, believe that changing drug education to a more honest approach that 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.”

D.A.R.E. itself has actually taken not of this as well. In March, D.A.R.E. announced that they were taking a new approach to anti-drug campaigns. Instead of a simple abstinence message, the organization is having student answer questions in workbooks that cover a number of decision-making tools including identifying risky situations, how to respond to peer pressure and making responsible choices.

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.


In Conclusion

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. Landmark Recovery understands that drug and alcohol addiction are serious illnesses. Landmark offers patients the tools and care they need to overcome their substance abuse problems. Our medical care staff or waiting to help usher you in to a new healthy, lifestyle. If you think you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse please reach out to our admissions staff to learn about your options regarding drug and alcohol rehab.

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