Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" Campaign Was a Disaster: How to End It for Good?

Nancy Reagan
Mar 07 2016

Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” Campaign Was a Disaster: How to End It for Good?

The phrase with which Nancy Reagan will forever be associated came out quite naturally, when the First Lady visited some schoolchildren in Oakland, California in 1982. “A little girl raised her hand,” she recalled, “and said, ‘Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?’ And I said, ‘Well, you just say no.'”

Nancy Reagan, who died Sunday at the age of 94, was one of America’s most influential First Ladies, serving in the role from 1981 to 1989. And nothing defined her, made her an icon of a kind, more than her campaign against drugs.

Her passion was fueled by a 1980 campaign stop at Daytop Village, an addiction treatment program in New York City. “I was stunned to find out just how large the problem of drug abuse really is,” she said. And at Daytop she saw “children who were climbing out of the mess that they had made of their lives because of their dependency on drugs.”

After her “Just Say No” tagline caught on, she launched a high-profile, long-lived campaign by that name in 1982, traveling around the US and the world and across the airwaves to promote it. PBS noted, “The movement focuses on white, middle-class children and is funded by corporate and private donations.” She visited rehab and prevention programs and oversaw the formation of thousands of Just Say No clubs in schools and youth organizations, some of which still operate to this day.

Her don’t-do-drugs message, a reassuringly simple balm to a nation’s fears, was widely embraced. It can also legitimately be blamed for a huge amount of human misery.

For one thing, abstinence-only drug education, most commonly delivered in the US in the form of DARE, doesn’t work. It also harmfully ignores the reality that some children and teenagers, no matter how much they are told not to, will take drugs—and if they are denied practical information about how to protect themselves, their drug use is more likely to have tragic consequences.

More broadly, Just Say No messaging promotes stigma around drug use, emphasizing that it is “wrong” while largely ignoring the psychological and social contexts of use. Its absolutism brooks no mention of the reality of widespread non-problematic drug use. It underscores the false idea that illegal drugs are inherently more dangerous than legal ones, demonizing these substances and by extension the people who use them.

Worse, in the Reagan era, the hard consequences of this kind of thinking were poisonous. It saw brutal crackdowns on drugs, escalating incarceration rates and cruel sentencing requirements.

This was partly thanks to the 1986 “National Crusade for a Drug-Free America” act, which built new prisons and created a range of mandatory minimum sentences for drug law violations. President Reagan signed it amid the racially charged crack panic of the 1980s, and it implemented vast sentencing disparities between powder cocaine and crack. The imposition of prison sentences on people of color was grotesquely disproportionate. And Nancy Reagan considered the passage of this awful act “a personal victory.”

Nancy Reagan contributed to a travesty from which the country has yet to heal. Yet it is plausible that she sincerely believed she was doing the right thing.

“There’s a big, wonderful world out there for you,” she said in 1986. “It belongs to you. It’s exciting and stimulating and rewarding. Don’t cheat yourselves out of this promise.” It’s a seductive line (and one that is still being praised).

“Drug abuse knows no boundaries,” she wrote to attendees at a drug conference she hosted at the UN in 1985. “It crosses all lines—geographical, racial, political, economic. There is no one here today whose country isn’t affected by the inevitable sorrow and tragedy drug abuse causes. Not only can it tear down an entire nation, it also brings danger into the lives of our most precious resource, our children.”

Those words (perhaps minus the “tear down an entire nation” bit) are the kind of thing you often read during our current opioid panic. But her UN conference letter continued with a sentence that sounds much more dated: “It is up to our generation to protect them and provide for them a drug-free world in which to live.”

We now live in a world that has widely accepted that becoming “drug-free” is an impossibility, and is accordingly looking for other solutions. An America where the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, founded in peak-Regan 1985, has changed its name to the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, and where harm reduction-oriented “Good Samaritan” and naloxone access laws, which acknowledge the reality of continuing drug use, are proliferating.

For all this, it is still common today to meet people who share Nancy Reagan’s attitude to drugs. Politicians, particularly Republicans (and even the relatively reasonable ones), have also stuck to her message.

But as those of us who support harm reduction and drug policy reform rail against the insanity of prohibition or the wrongheadedness of abstinence-only messaging, it’s important to ask ourselves what we want to achieve. Are we aiming to score points, to earn the approval of those who already agree with us? Or are we aiming to change the minds of our opponents?

If it’s the latter, we need to find ways to engage with those who disagree with us without insulting them—to accept that people can hold misguided beliefs for reasons other than their being horrible people.

In Nancy Reagan’s case, that means pointing out her major misdeeds but also seeking to understand where she was coming from. Her concerns were first raised by the drug-related problems suffered by her friends’ children. She was born in 1921, when alcohol was illegal in the US, and would have absorbed a half century or so of establishment-approved anti-drug messages before embarking on her own crusade.

Many people who adhere to Just Say No today have suffered from drug-related problems, or seen their loved ones suffer. Many are afraid—of drugs, of social change, of their children being harmed; no one likes the idea of children experimenting with drugs. And many are unaware that there are better-evidenced alternatives for the criminal justice system and the classroom.

To effectively dispel the harmful myths that Nancy Reagan spread, we need to recognize the sources of their power.

Despite her probably-good intentions, she failed to educate herself sufficiently, failed in later years to admit she was at fault, (in contrast, her later Alzheimer’s advocacy, including support for stem cell research despite Republican opposition, showed she could learn from the evidence), and exacerbated the problems she sought to solve.

Her drugs legacy should be instructive to all of us who have fears, to all of us who have failed to educate ourselves as much as we should, and to all of us who have known what it is to be spectacularly wrong.

Will Godfrey is the editor-in-chief of The Influence. You can follow him on Twitter: @GodfreyWill

  • I think she was a pansy for Mel Sembler’s “Straight, Inc” abusive teen treatment programs, which turned into Daytop Village and Phoenix House, as Maia could tell you. I think she just needed a ‘First Lady’ concern. Jeb!’s wife Columba has expressed a similar interest in addiction treatment, and that campaign was also funded by Sembler. (And their daughters had various addiction/legal debacles.) I guess Sembler’s influence has waned. Wow what a colossal waste.

    “Just say no” is fascinating for all the reasons you mentioned but also because it’s a lie. Kids do drugs not because of ‘peer pressure’ but because they want to. Because it’s fun. But the shibboleth allows them to later claim, “I didn’t want to do it, but they pressured me. And then I was hooked after the first pill/gulp/snort.” And then they become addicted and do all the things that drugs make you do. The irony being of course, it’s just a continuation of a long history of doing things you’re not supposed to. It’s pretty clever and obviously a little girl is not going to be offered drugs. “What do you do if an old guy in a van drives up to you and offers you candy?” LOL. Kind of brilliant. How did no one notice at the time?

  • Will –

    A very strong and sensitive essay. Thank you.


  • Dean Becker

    The truth is writ large as the sky, we can never forgive Nancy or any prohibitionist for their “ignorance”.

    • Joe Minella

      “Ignorance” indeed. Deliberate, Destructive, Gutless, Supremely Uncaring “Ignorance”. I wish I believed in hell.

    • She saved lives.. Never forgive anyone that come between ‘you’ and your addictions. Death isn’t a good enough reason to question drug abuse.

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  • Silver Damsen

    Why is that there are people who know about how drug culture and treatment culture work, such as on this site, and similar ones, and yet no one with genuine power seems to be listening?

    Despite everyone who understands what is at stake with the “Just Say No Campaign” and why it failed, NCADA has a one minute PSA on heroin that almost certainly will not help the opiate epidemic.

    I, and a few other people, have even written NCADA and they insist that this video story of a cheerleader furthers the intelligent and thoughtful discussion of the opiate epidemic. The video itself focusses on a “all American cheerleader” who supposedly does heroin at a party on a dare and then progressively loses aspects of her life…. as well as her clothing.

    I can’t help myself, I picture teens, especially males, eagerly playing this ridiculous advertisement over and over again while drinking/doing drugs yelling things like “take it off baby.”

    • Joe Minella

      It sounds like they just reshot “reefer Madness”, changing the “details”.

  • Failure.. Disaster … All terms used by addicts to denigrate the commonsense they lack while pushing the baseline of normal to highs unsafe for anyone. Crime skyrockets as productivity drops exponentially.. Yet the rhetoric continues..

    A failure to a few People can be a victory for many… Victory is hardly equated with addiction…

    • Philip Kagalovsky

      It is extremely disheartening to see someone who has so much information accessible to them instantly, be so painfully ignorant. Your idiotic comment has been the basis of addiction “treatment” for the past century. The punitive imprisonment of addicts to “teach” them what bad people they are, along with quackery such as the 12 steps or “Just Say No!” (its as simple as that!), or the War on Drugs because if only the supply was cut off then there’d be no more addicts!

      Try educating yourself on what has been proven to work in solving these issues, i.e. opioid replacement therapy (Methadone, Suboxone) or harm reduction methods which solve to reduce transmission of diseases (needle exchanges), or Narcan to reverse overdoses (which makes every single one of the millions of global overdose deaths completely unecessary since it is EASY and CHEAP to reverse an overdose within minutes), and simply just being in the know about what addiction is. However, it the attitude taken by people like yourself which serves to prolong and propagate all the negative consequences blamed on “addiction”, while millions of people and their families UNECESSARILY have their lives ruined.

      In addition, NOT putting people in cages and destroying the rest of their lives for being sick, and NOT telling people that all they need is “God” or “a higher power”, or to simply “man up” to stop being sick might help. Seriously, put your ignorance and prejudices aside, and look at what ACTUALLY works.

      • If your replacement therapy worked… There would be a decrease and not a massive increase….
        Coupled with exploitation and fallacious information.. Your idea is not actually working. Crime has even increased… All of the claims have been wrong. Legalization did not slow or crush the cartels… They got more powerful… Go denigrate someone stupid enough to believe you….

        • Philip Kagalovsky

          Everything you just said is WRONG. You are directly ignoring ALL the scientific evidence and research. Opioid replacement therapy has been MASSIVELY restricted, and the scientific prediction have been proved correct wherever it has been implemented.

          What legalization?? The massive criminalization of illicit opioids has only increased the power of cartels. It’s not about “belief”, it’s about reality, and you are choosing to ignore it. Again, I will attach the link to multiple studies on this issue, and every study in existence which has been performed relating to this issue has shown that opioid replacement therapy is the MOST effective method of reducing mortality (by 70%) as well as disease transmission, as well as reducing crime associated with feeding an illicit opioid habit.

          Above is the link, please do not deliberately ignore the evidence, and please stop spouting lies which lead to the death of more people. Hundreds of thousands of people have died and more will die because of the kind of lies you are spouting. STOP.

          • I ignore nothing….. Statistics is not a simple subject.
            You STOP. Your link points to a Soros supported site.
            recent report commissioned by IDT, the Center for Studies and Opinion
            Polls (CESOP) of the Portuguese Catholic University, based on direct
            interviews regarding the attitudes of the Portuguese towards drug
            addiction (which has strangely never been released), revealed the
            following: 83.7% of respondents
            indicated that the number of drug users in Portugal has increased in
            the last four years. 66.8% believe that the accessibility of drugs in
            their neighborhoods was easy or very easy and 77.3% stated that crime
            related to drugs has also increased (“Toxicodependências” No. 3, 2007).


            Your pro addiction. Get over it.

          • Philip Kagalovsky

            Dude, you’re ignoring the vast majority of mainstream science on the basis of one obscure study which you claim “has never been released”.

            You’re also ignoring evidence based on the fact that it is on a “Soros supported site”, even though I linked you to an independent EU organization. Do you know what that is? EU stands for the European Union, but then again I don’t expect you to know what that is.

          • Wolfgang Götz,,,

            ‘As a matter of fact Portugal remains the country with the
            highest incidence of IDU-related AIDS and it is the only country recording a
            recent increase. 703 newly diagnosed infections, followed from a distance by
            Estonia with 191 and Latvia with 108 reported cases. We’re top of the list,
            with a shameful 268% aggravation from the next worst case (EMCDDA – November

            ‘The number of new cases of HIV / AIDS and Hepatitis C in
            Portugal recorded among drug users is eight times the average found in other
            member states of the European Union. “Portugal keeps on being the country
            with the most cases of injected drug related AIDS (85 new cases per one million
            of citizens in 2005, while the majority of other EU countries do not exceed 5
            cases per million) and the only one registering a recent increase. 36 more
            cases per one million of citizens were estimated in 2005 comparatively to 2004,
            when only 30 were referred ” (EMCDDA – November 2007).

            ‘Since the implementation of decriminalization in Portugal,
            the number of homicides related to drug use has increased 40%. “Portugal
            was the only European country to show a significant increase in homicides
            between 2001 and 2006.” (WDR – World Drug Report, 2009) “With
            219 deaths by drug ‘overdose’ a year, Portugal has one of the worst records,
            reporting more than one death every two days. Along with Greece, Austria and
            Finland, Portugal is one of the countries that recorded an increase in drug
            overdose by over 30% in 2005”.(EMCDDA – November 2007).

            Insults and condescension is not making your misinformation any easier to understand…. You should get off drugs for awhile…

          • Portugal Bulldozed the heroin districts pushing the addicts into the surrounding area’s… They didn’t quit. Check into it. America is a different system. It will take decades to reinvent commonsense.

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