In what is perhaps Nancy Reagan’s most well-known cultural contribution, the First Lady stared gravely into the camera and told the American people to “Just Say No.”
“Our job is never easy because drug criminals are ingenious,” she said in the 1986 address. “They work everyday to plot a new and better way to steal our children’s lives, just as they’ve done by developing this new drug, crack. For every door that we close, they open a new door to death.”
And then the famous line: “Say yes to your life. And when it comes to drugs and alcohol just say no.”
Nancy Reagan passed away Sunday at the age of 94 after suffering congestive heart failure, according to the Reagan Library. Along with her involvement in the Reagan administration’s efforts to fight AIDS in Africa, she will likely be remembered best for her ad campaign to prevent teenagers from using drugs.
Decades after the First Lady’s address to the nation, “Just Say No” is best known as a punchline. It also became emblematic of her husband’s War on Drugs. “Just Say No” was the cultural, family-oriented prong of the White House’s assault on America’s drug problem.
The problem was, “just saying no” to drugs didn’t actually work.
DARE, the most widespread educational program operating under the “just say no” philosophy, was essentially a failure at dissuading young people from doing drugs. DARE brought law enforcement officers into classrooms once a week or so to tell young people why they should stay away from drugs. But researchers found that teenagers who were enrolled in the program were just as likely to use drugs as those who did not receive this training, according to Scientific American.
Programs that did make a difference acknowledged the difficulty of just saying no, coaching kids on how to handle social expectation and peer pressure. “They teach students the social skills they need to refuse drugs and give them opportunities to practice these skills with other students—for example, by asking students to play roles on both sides of a conversation about drugs, while instructors coach them about what to say and do,” Scientific American explained. “In addition, programs that work take into account the importance of behavioral norms: they emphasize to students that substance use is not especially common and thereby attempt to counteract the misconception that abstaining from drugs makes a person an oddball.”
Instead of convincing kids not to use drugs, the hysteria around drug use by young people helped create some of the most destructive mechanisms of mass incarceration.
Fears of children getting addicted to drugs gave rise to the school-to-prison pipeline. Shortly after the First Lady launched her Just Say No campaign, Congress passed the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act in 1986, mandating zero tolerance for any drugs or alcohol found on public school grounds. That brought police officers into schools. Those police officers then started arresting students not only for drug possession but also for minor school code infractions, such as throwing Skittles or violating the dress code.
Black and Latino kids are far more likely to be arrested at school for these kinds of offenses. Once they enter the juvenile justice system, their ability to graduate from high school, get a job, and stay out of the criminal justice system as adults essentially vanishes.
Another idea that came out of the fears of youth drug abuse were drug-free zones. These zones were meant to keep drug dealers from selling to children by enhancing penalties for dealing near schools or other places children go. But the no-go areas have become so expansive that they have criminalized entire cities — and generally failed to keep dealers away.
The fears behind “Just Say No” are close to obsolete today, as marijuana legalization becomes a reality in more and more states. In fact, successful state legalization campaigns targeted middle class parents, much like Nancy Reagan’s ad campaign did. And some of those parents’ interests have changed. Rather than battle drugs, many parents are now fighting for their right to give medical marijuana to their children for chronic illnesses.