No one who laments the passing of First Lady Nancy Reagan will fail to acknowledge what has become perhaps her signature contribution to American life. “Just say no,” she famously replied to a young school girl who asked her what to do when presented with drug use.
Simplistic, say some, or even “moralistic,” as if morality and the risk of addiction were not central issues in the life of youth. But there was in the phrase a clarity, and even an advancement of a critical principle that came at a time when popular culture encouraged too many young people to try drugs. Governments can mount programs that seek to shape our choices and our lives. But unless they summon from each of us some willing agency—the power to resist pressure and choose for ourselves—they will not drive deeply.
It seems fitting that Nancy Reagan would have grasped this, as well as the role of communities, schools, parents, and civic life in building and sustaining youth protection. In fact, the principle fits with the great agenda of her husband the President, in his insistence that in a political system such as ours, the citizen in the community is ultimately the master of his or her fate, and they must exercise their own judgment.
It is further fitting that the Presidential couple emerged from Hollywood knowing how to capture our imagination and give us a sense of direction. Nancy brought common purpose to those looking for leadership to push back against the rampant drug use they saw destroying their children and communities. At its height in the mid-1990s, the Just Say No Foundation had more than one million members in 12 countries.
Today we know much more about drugs and the risks that they offer to youth. The use of highly potent marijuana, for instance, is now scientifically understood to present genuine hazards for serious psychotic episodes, damage intellectual potential and the capacity to learn, and, as research has shown just this week, to be associated with a permanent risk of “mental disability.”
Surely the best answer to such threats still includes our ability to protect ourselves; to “just say no” when the danger is presented, rather than to be willingly seduced by the lie.
Because of the campaign she championed, a cultural tide began to shift. Drug use was seen as the behavioral disease that it is, and even celebrity Americans turned increasingly to treatment and recovery. Moreover, research has now strengthened our sense that for youth, perceptions of risk in using drugs, linked with strong social norms of disapproval, are major forces supporting youth prevention.
Alas, we might have lost that message, as young people’s perception of risk in using drugs have recently been recorded at the same low levels Ronald and Nancy Reagan faced when they first entered the White House following the drug-addled 1970s. Our rising generation’s welcoming attitude towards drugs is not surprising considering the acceptance, in our communities and even in Presidential politics, of legal, recreational drugs, sending the false message that drug use is safe and acceptable.
Did her “Just Say No” campaign work? Correlation is not causation, we all know, but Nancy Reagan inspired parents to insist on anti-drug programs in schools and communities. She changed the culture, with even the media pressed into the service of helping more young people say “no.” Bipartisan political will also shifted and America attacked the supply of drugs at home and abroad, including passing laws that fully accounted for the violence and death associated with drug trafficking.
Perhaps as a function of the long effort to change attitudes and values, from 1978, when 50 percent of high school seniors were using marijuana, the number fell, dropping to 36 percent in 1987, and went as low as 22 percent by 1992, according to the Monitoring the Future survey overseen by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Heroin use was also cut in half, as was the use of psychedelic drugs. More than mere percentages, that massive downturn represented millions of lives altered for the better, and thousands of lives saved. That “Just Say No” generation continues to have fewer of the pathologies associated with drug use, even 30 years later.
With an emergent, disturbing acceptance of drug use, we are again facing rising usage rates leading to wasted lives and a recent, massive increase in overdose deaths. Policy makers, many of whom are of the generation protected by Nancy Reagan’s efforts, should take a fresh look at her three simple words and the power they invoked and the lives they saved.