Mixed legacy for Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ anti-drug drive

Gene Johnson
Associated Press

Seattle – — For a generation of Americans, first lady Nancy Reagan was most closely associated with a single phrase: “Just Say No.”

Three decades after the anti-drug campaign’s heyday, its legacy is mixed. Experts say the slogan brought new attention to drug abuse and helped focus research on how to prevent it. But the motto was also part of a larger escalation of the drug war that relied on fear-based rhetoric, public moralizing and skyrocketing incarceration rates.

“Overall the larger prevention community is thankful for large campaigns like ‘Just Say No,’ for the broad, population-level awareness they raise,” said Derek Franklin, who heads the Washington Association for Substance Abuse and Violence Prevention. “However, the sort of shaming attitude and questionable moral divide it created was something we wouldn’t do today.”

Further evidence of changing attitudes can be found in the movement to legalize marijuana, which is now permitted for medical use in 23 states and for recreational use in Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, Alaska and Washington, D.C.

Reagan, who died Sunday at 94, made “Just Say No” the hallmark of her tenure in the White House. She said she first became aware of the drug problem when she learned that the children of some of her friends were using drugs. Her own daughter, Patti Davis, later wrote of experimenting with pills and cocaine.

As Reagan once recalled, the idea emerged during a visit with schoolchildren in 1982 in Oakland, California. “A little girl raised her hand and said, ‘Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?’ And I said, ‘Well, you just say no.’ And there it was born.”

The message instantly resonated. By 1988, there were more than 12,000 “Just Say No” clubs around the country. Most were at least loosely based on the ideas developed in Oakland, said Allan Cohen was the executive director of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, which had a federal contract to help states and local communities develop drug-abuse prevention program.

Many researchers remain skeptical of the campaign’s effectiveness, associating it with the first lady’s calls to be intolerant of drug users or with the famous television commercial that featured an actor dropping an egg into a frying pan and saying, “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

It’s apparent now that efforts to scare people into abstaining from drugs failed, they said.

“You think of ‘Just Say No,’ you think of eggs in a frying pan,” said Caleb Banta-Green, a researcher at the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. “Just because you remember it doesn’t mean it worked.”