« Notable split Sixth Circuit ruling on (suspect) limits of retroactive guideline reductions | Main | Judge John Gleeson invents and issues a "federal certificate of rehabilitation" »

March 7, 2016

"Did Nancy Reagan's War on Drugs Backfire?"

The question in the title of this post is the headline of this intriguing new NBC News commentary by Tony Dokoupil. For reasons I will explain after an excerpt, I think this question is an unfair variation on the "When did you stop beating your wife?" question. But first, here are some excerpts:

It's one of the risks of a long and busy life: the threat that society will change its mind about your most important work. That happened to Nancy Reagan, the former first lady who died on Sunday at 94.  President Ronald Reagan's wife and closest adviser defined the drug panic of the 1980s, coining the phrase "Just Say No" and supporting her husband's rampaging war on drugs.  She often singled out marijuana as a special scourge, accusing dealers of taking "the dream from every child's heart."

But such positions have since slipped into disrepute in recent years, rejected even by many fellow Republicans. Nearly half the country has tried marijuana, meanwhile, and legal sales are booming in four states and counting.  Criminal justice reform, including reducing sentences for nonviolent drug convictions, has been a point of discussion on both sides of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Nancy Reagan never publicly recanted or so much as commented on her starring role in the drug war.  But with a look back at the origins of her and her husband's hardline policies, it's possible to trace the arc of one of America's most famous failures.

Ronald Reagan, eyeing a challenge to President Jimmy Carter, seemed to know that an attack on marijuana would tap into a growing displeasure with wayward teens, slack productivity and a society of apathetic Carter voters.  So in a major radio address in 1979 Reagan revealed what "science now knows," including the dubious "scientific facts" that smoking dope leads to cancer, sterility and "irreversible effects on the mental processes."  Never mind that the National Academy of Sciences had endorsed the idea of decriminalizing marijuana, finding "no convincing evidence" of its harmful effects.

The drug became an enemy of promise, the explanation for everything.  Why is your teenager refusing to cut the lawn?  Marijuana.  Why is your industry falling behind Japan's?  Marijuana.  Why do you have to lock your door at night? Hard drugs — which start with marijuana.

Nancy Reagan emerged as the most effective carrier of her husband's message.  She focused on almost nothing else during his presidency, beginning with an informal press conference aboard Air Force One in early 1982.  She told the press that drugs had become an epidemic.  Then she made her first stop in a cross-country swing, an open meeting of Straight Inc., a youth rehabilitation program in Florida....

Later on the same tour, during a visit to an elementary school in Oakland, California, she coined her famous phrase. An elementary school student asked her what he should do if anyone ever offered him pot. "Just say no!" she said.

Experts pounced.  The slogan was one of the most unsophisticated anti-drug messages of all time.  It suggested that drugs are evil, but you can quit them at any time.  Yet the phrase served a purpose.  It created what Nancy proudly called "an atmosphere of intolerance."  Other politicians compared drug dealers to vampires, murderers and traitors. And people began to associate pot with waste and dropouts....

In June 1982, Ronald Reagan appeared in the White House garden to officially declare a war on drugs.  "We're taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we're running up a battle flag.  We can fight the drug problem, and we can win. And that is exactly what we intend to do," he said.  Marijuana was the only drug to merit specific mention.

Regular readers surely know that I think demonizing marijuana was a mistake as part of the Reagan era "war on drugs." But I actually think Nancy Reagan's "just say no" voice in all this was not nearly as pernicious as this commentary is trying to suggest. Indeed, though an unsophisticated anti-drug message, the "just say no" mantra, in my view, continues to highlight and emphasize the fundamental individual reality at the base of many drug problems even though illegal drug use and abuse includes a lot more complicated issues.

The real problems resulting from the failed American war on drugs, in my view, did not at all emerge from Nancy Reagan urging individuals to just say no to drugs; the real problems flowed from waging the drug war with massive investments in big-government criminal justice system that too heavily invested in cops and cells rather than classrooms and counseling.

March 7, 2016 at 05:42 PM | Permalink


"the real problems flowed from waging the drug war with massive investments in big-government criminal justice system that too heavily invested in cops and cells rather than classrooms and counseling."

I don't agree. The real reason the war on drugs failed was because it became a proxy war for class warfare. That's the reason that classrooms and counseling never had a big following---because it would have been constitutionally required to give them to the poor as well as the rich, black as well as white. What an authoritarian approach to the drug war did was allow the middle class to put all the poor--especially minorities--in the jail while using their cultural capital to free themselves from the same fate for doing the same thing.

For evidence that it did not have to be that way one need to look no further than the war on pedophilia. One of the most remarkable aspects of this current war is that it is not a proxy for a class war. Indeed, one could argue that when it comes to financial penalties the rich actually come of worse.

So in my view the war of drugs failed because as a society we were never serious about it as a drug war in and of itself. If we had gone full Iran and started hanging people left and right for smoking dope, the war could have been won. The war on drugs never had its General Grant and General Sherman, that was the problem.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 7, 2016 7:42:48 PM

The one who has the most influence over the zeitgeist also has the most influence over the law. Without Nancy Regan's "just say no" it is not as likely we would have the incarceration nation we have today. She of course did not intend that but those lawmakers would ride on her coattails fought over who would be reign supreme in that respect. It became, “we will make you say no.” It was as widespread in the schools as was eugenics in the early 20th century, and accomplished nearly the same goal. Drug users were and are after all a little too rebellious for the authoritarian to consider citizens with equal rights. Maybe it was Nixon who thought drug users so dangerous to law and order and maybe Nancy Regan inherited that philosophy, but it stood the test of time until now.

Posted by: George | Mar 7, 2016 8:02:17 PM

Daniel: I like your thoughts.
George: Your comparison to eugenics is distasteful.

Nancy Reagan tried (albeit naively) to address the problem of drug abuse by encouraging abstinance. She did not write or pass mandatory minimums. She did not enforce the drug laws in a racially disproportionate manner. It's not HER failed drug war. Let her rest in peace.

Posted by: USPO | Mar 7, 2016 8:21:52 PM

I really don't know how much Nancy Reagan even on the level of her message "just say so" affected the "war on drugs." I think her approach was overly simplistic and it wasn't applied in a morally neutral way -- that is, drugs were seen as something bad and dangerous, which in some fashion aided and abetted the policies. How much? Who knows.

If the usage of the eugenics references is distasteful, take it out of the comment. The rest can still hold on its own.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 7, 2016 9:37:56 PM


The comparison is not that outrageous. Both were fundamentally class warfare and like "Just say no" eugenics was in the school books and schools. Just part of the curriculum from grade school on up. Inculcation.

I do not mean to belittle Nancy Regan and agree she should RIP. The zeitgeist was the overall point, not anything personal.

Posted by: George | Mar 8, 2016 2:01:04 AM

Thanks to WhatsApp PLUS, customers can choose from lots of pallets from various backgrounds and also shades to embellish your conversations.

Posted by: whatsuply | Oct 6, 2017 6:53:26 AM

You can quickly create your video clips as well as can share it on Facebook and also different other social networks websites network. In the extra area.

Posted by: musicallylogin | Oct 30, 2017 7:06:14 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB