Nancy Reagan and the War on Marijuana

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Former First Lady Nancy Reagan died in March, and while many political and cultural leaders remembered her fondly, the marijuana community has a decidedly different point of view on her legacy.

First Lady Nancy ReaganReagan, the wife of President Ronald Reagan, made an immediate splash when she and her husband moved into the White House in 1981. A staunch protector of the president’s image, she drew attention in Washington, D.C., for years – not all of it good, even at the time.

But she is best remembered for her unfortunate role in the war on drugs. It started in 1982, when the first lady visited an elementary school in California. A student asked her what children should do if they were offered drugs. Without missing a beat, Nancy Reagan told the girl to “just say no.”

Just Say No gathered steam

Within a short time, Just Say No clubs started popping up in schools and anti-drug programs across the country. Not unlike anti-alcohol temperance groups of the 19th century, these clubs asked members to pledge never to try drugs – including marijuana.

Just Say No quickly became a central theme of the president’s campaign against drug use. And cannabis was at the center of that battle from the start. Indeed, the Reagans mentioned the drug more than any other during their eight years in Washington, including heroin and cocaine.

Though the campaign began in 1982, it didn’t win widespread attention until Nancy Reagan made a national address on the subject in 1986.

“Our job is never easy because drug criminals are ingenious,” she said. “They work every day to plot a new and better way to steal our children’s lives . . . they open a new door to death. Say yes to your life. And when it comes to drugs and alcohol, just say no.”

Reagan infamous for Just Say No campaign

Just Say NoThe former first lady died March 6 at the age of 94. She was known in her time for other projects, including an effort to combat the emerging AIDS crisis in Africa, but it was her work on Just Say No that made her famous – and infamous – to the American public.

That attention followed her throughout both of her husband’s terms, and Just Say No was very popular for a time. But even then, experts warned it wouldn’t work. With hindsight, that has become patently clear.

Ronald Reagan launched a new “war on drugs” soon after taking office and pointedly claimed marijuana was the ultimate scourge of America’s teenagers. Most experts disagreed, and the crack cocaine epidemic drew much more concern from public health agencies.

The science on marijuana was already clear by the 1980s, and anyone who understood that science would have agreed the drug was nowhere near as dangerous as any other illegal substance.

Sought to appease conservative voters

But the president and his wife were engaged in a push that was more about politics than healthcare. The Reagans presented a strong conservative front to voters, and part of that image included “pro-family” propaganda.

Among other disasters, Just Say No was responsible for the creation of D.A.R.E., a group that uses police officers to dissuade children from trying drugs. D.A.R.E. has proved to be an unmitigated failure, with no impact on rates of drug use.

The same is true of the entire Just Say No push. It was based less on science than on a conservative political revolt against the perceived cultural excesses of the 1960s. And it was doomed to defeat from the start.

The underlying idea has merit: Teens are sometimes confronted with dangerous drugs, and refusing them would avoid addiction and other problems down the road. But such things aren’t remotely so easy. Researchers who actually studied drug abuse passed up the Just Say No idea and instead focused on teaching kids real strategies for avoiding drugs in school.

Excessive focus on marijuana

Just Say No sowed the seeds of its own destruction, especially with its obsessive focus on marijuana. The Reagans repeatedly insisted cannabis was the most dangerous illicit drug, and that it led users to move on to harder drugs. Later science showed this assumption to be bunk, but it warped the country’s opinion for decades.

Rolling Marijuana JointDuring that time, countless thousands of people, primarily young black men, were locked up in prison over minor drug charges. President Reagan also enacted mandatory minimum sentencing laws that led to extremely long sentences for many non-violent offenders.

What’s more, zero tolerance laws in schools followed Just Say No and led to the incarceration of an untold number of students. It was essentially a straight pipeline from school to prison, and again, most of its victims were black.

Nancy Reagan had other impacts during her time at the White House, but she will always be remembered primarily for Just Say No. And that’s a tragedy – not only to her but to the many people whose lives she ruined.

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