Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No Legacy"

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    Late last night, I caught the news on KOMO 1000 that Nancy Reagan had died. The ABC News announcer stated that Nancy Reagan became famous for her campaign for “a drug-free society.” I started to wonder, as a thought experiment, what might such a society be like? Would everybody have to effectively adopt the lifestyle of a Seventh Day Adventist or Mormon?

    I was born in 1974, so one part of my frame of reference is that I grew up with hokey “you can be happy without drugs” messages that were designed for young children. Looking back, statistics show that use of some drugs went down during the 1980s, so perhaps the people who designed these campaigns were onto something. Another part of my frame of reference is that I never experienced the permissive drug environment of the 1970s and very early ’80s. Some of my classmates (in engineering circles), in fact, were very firm that it was socially unacceptable to consume anything other than alcohol.

    (For more on “Just Say No” and the social environment prior to the campaign, see: )


    Just say no was a joke. The most hypocritical stance, possibly ever, by people who probably said one thing but did another.

    If only it was so easy as just saying no?


    You are right again.


    1. Decriminalize via legalization an whole suite of drugs; including marijuana, cocaine, an array of opiates, etc.
    2. Regulate and tax the sale of said drugs.
    3. Watch the crime rate plummet and revenues soar. It’s not theoretical, in both Washington and Colorado it’s been nothing but positive/nothing but a windfall for every resident of the state. Literally zero of the terrible things that are always warned about in reference to drug legalization have occurred. I.e. Reactionary conservatives are proven wrong yet again.
    4. Concurrently, overhaul the criminal justice system to eliminate man/min sentencing for drug related offenses. A huge proportion of the people we lock up (and which cost hundreds of millions of tax dollars) are nonviolent offenders. Permanently ruining peoples lives over drug offenses is immoral, unethical, and completely inhumane. Oh, and not very “Christian”, either, while I’m m

    By any objective measure the so called war on drugs has been a sick joke, an abject failure, and an endless pit which we continue to throw both unbelievable sums of money and human lives into. If any other country engaged in this kind of idiotic endeavor we’d all be pointing, laughing, and wondering what the hell is wrong with them.

    That’s the legacy of “Just say no”.


    I disagree. The worst part of the war on drugs was the criminalization, as stated above. The best part was the statement itself – “Just say no”. It acknowledges that drugs are out there and available, and each should make a personal choice about drug use, and the best answer is to not do it.

    I’m pro legalization and regulation of drugs; let’s shine a light on it and let those who will use it, use it. But I’ll also staunchly advocate that people don’t use drugs, because in far too many cases it becomes a destructive lifestyle.

    Nancy Reagan would sit with kids and talking about drug use. I don’t think she would go all “Reefer Madness” with them, but instead talked about the negative effects of drug use, especially at a young age, and openly admit that drug use is part of American life. Counseling kids to “just say no” and choose a drug-free lifestyle…I think that was great, and I admire her for doing it.


    It seems like we agree on most of the main points/main particulars.

    My critique of the just say no campaign itself is a bit more nuanced than I previously outlined. Though I stand by my ultimate assessment that its legacy is more or less a sad joke.

    To your main point, I agree whole heartedly. There’s nothing wrong with messaging to children that they should take a stand against drug usage. It’s a positive sentiment that no-one could possibly take umbrage with. That’s not really my issue.

    The reason I lump all of those (provable) negatives about the messages ultimate futility and ineffectualness is that neither Nancy Regan (or her husband) ever did anything else other than offer that message and its attendant sloganeering. That’s all they had. That’s all they thought was necessary.

    IMO, a “just say no” campaign, in absence of any other actually substantive and meaningful actions as has been previously detailed, was simply a bit of feel good messaging (mostly directed at white, middle class, children) that did little to nothing to create meaningful or positive change. We poured billions of tax dollars down that war on drugs hole, locked up millions upon millions of people for nonviolent drug offences, failed to offer treatment or job training of any kind, and then made ourselves feel good about these alternately pointless or futile actions by telling children to “just say no”.

    The very messaging may have actually helped propagate the very ills I’m detailing that are beyond contestation. I.e. Nancy Regan and the liked minded, to some extent, helped brainwash a generation of children into reflexively condemning any actions to legalize a variety of drugs, and automatically assigning deep criminality (without exception or empathy) to anyone who was a drug order. The law and order crowd of the GOP helped create the modern (and failed) prison state.

    Interesting article on the same subject I came across on that subject:

    Was she ultimately kind-hearted, doing what she felt was right, and combatting a societal ill in a manner she truly believe was positive and effective at the time? No doubt.

    Yet we all know what the road to hell is paved with.


    It seems that in the haste to blame marijuana as a “gateway drug” in the early 1980s (see NBC News story linked in previous post), few people stopped to ask, “how many of these drug-addicted teenagers drink alcohol? How many of them use tobacco products?” Some years later on his radio show, Dr. Dean Edell stated that research data showed that alcohol and tobacco are the true “gateway drugs.”

    darth talon

    If you watch the Netflix show “Narcos.” They talk about the Nancy and her “Just say no” campaign. They also talk about the war on drugs, and how it started. The US government wasn’t getting any money off of it. So let’s start a war on drugs to end it. And America lost the war on drug on the first day off the war.

    But as a kid of the 80’s. I remember “just say no.” Nancy Reagan showed up on Diff’rent Strokes after Arnold wrote a story in the school paper about a drug dealer trying to sale him drugs on school grounds. Nancy showed up after hearing about the story

    And maybe because “just say no.” I’ve never wanted or had the need to try drugs. I’ve seen many of my family members on drugs. I remember walking into my aunt’s house and seeing her passed out with a belt on the floor and a needle stuck in her arm. It’s an image you can’t forget.

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