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Nancy Reagan and the negative impact of the 'Just Say No' anti-drug campaign
A three-word mantra and an overly simplistic education program failed millions of American children – and unless we acknowledge the underlying factors of the drug epidemic, we’re doomed to fail millions more

When police officers came to my semi-rural elementary school in 1990 to deliver an anti-drug message, they played a video clip of Nancy Reagan’s three-word mantra, “Just Say No”; distributed posters of a drug-sniffing K-9 police dog; and shared their experiences of scrapping with drug users and dealers – always characterized as a tawdry assortment of losers and bums. They arrived in a black Camaro with Dare (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) scrawled on its side in blazing faux graffiti, one officer explaining how his department had seized it from a drug dealer.

Delivered by that older, composed, wealthy white woman – who died this weekend – “Just Say No” was a powerful tool. It aligned “drugs” (non-specific in terms of type and method of ingestion) with a dangerous and roughly defined “other”, and presented them as the consequence of collective personal failure in affected communities rather than a public health crisis for millions of Americans.
Overall, the officers’ message was simplistic and vague, grouping everything from alcohol to angel dust into one toxic cloud that loomed over our society. The demonization of such substances and those people in their orbit was of a piece with the national public service announcements of the day, which told us that drugs either made you fly or fried your brain like an egg. The end result was that, in the minds of impressionable students like myself and my classmates, drugs were a defect rather than a symptom; a moral rather than societal failure.

From the perspective of an adult (and recreational drug user), Reagan’s message looks much worse: alarmist and damaging, a child-friendly arm of the continuing campaign to justify and perpetuate a “war on drugs” with racially and economically disproportional targets.
On the home front in the US, the war on drugs is unable to prevent record numbers of overdoses and declining life expectancies. Farther afield, it cannot halt 164,000 reported homicides in Mexico between 2007 and 2014, the most violent years of conflict between the state and drug cartels.

The “Just Say No” message has become increasingly meaningless in the face of the US opioid epidemic, which largely stems from prescription medications. Every day 75 people die of heroin or painkiller overdoses in America.

Much like abstinence-based sex education, Dare and “Just Say No” spread fear and ignorance instead of information, placing all responsibility on the individual while denying them the tools they need to make key decisions. As Reagan herself said when she addressed the nation 20 years ago: “Drug criminals are ingenious ... They work every day to plot a new and better way to steal our children’s lives.” It’s a shame the anti-drug programs of the period failed to show the same ingenuity when it came to teaching children about the very real dangers of substance abuse.

Instead we get “zero tolerance” policies, “drug-free zones”, cops in schools and stop and frisk, while cities spend $400,000 on public toilets designed to discourage drug use and Super Bowl ads market treatments for opioid-related constipation.

One could argue that any educational programming aimed at children would have to be simple. There wasn’t the time or attention span on hand to fully address the complexities of America’s relationship with drugs, and there certainly wasn’t time to discuss systemic racism, economic issues or the coldhearted ineptitude of the Reagan administration.

So instead we got a program that placed the weight of an intractable, billion-dollar underground industry squarely on the shoulders of the individual. It was easy to digest, easy to remember and, if you didn’t listen, the good guys – represented for my generation by a pursed, pleading and perfectly coiffed Nancy Reagan – had nothing else for you.

But while she made a lasting impression, the first lady’s cause was doomed. The data shows that Reagan’s catchphrase just doesn’t work: teens subjected to Dare remain just as likely to use drugs as those who receive no anti-drug messages.

It is tempting to think that any attention paid to the drug epidemic is a blessing, even if it is just a wrong-headed platitude and a seized Camaro. There was even some chatter about increased funding for drug treatment and education from Republican presidential candidates during this year’s campaign. But unless we radically change course and acknowledge the realities of American drug use and its underlying socioeconomic factors, millions of Dare kids like me will continue to grow up and say yes.