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-Reagan 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