One of former first lady Nancy Reagan’s most famous projects, and perhaps her most enduring legacy, emanated from a piece of advice she gave in 1982 to a young girl who asked what she should do if offered drugs. Her spontaneous answer, of course, was “just say no.”
This simple phrase became a mantra which endured, in various forms, for decades.
Perhaps the phrase had its most significant impact on school-based drug education programs, which proliferated in the early 1980s alongside the escalating War on Drugs. “Just Say No” became its fundamental principle.
I have to admit that in 1982, when my daughter was young and I was studying heroin addiction for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, I thought Reagan’s advice was just fine. Who wouldn’t want kids to abstain, anyway?
Subsequently, “just say no” became institutionalized, with the ubiquitous D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), created by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1983, making its way into 75% of school districts in America.
The messages contained in prevention programs were designed to frighten adolescents. They included such statements as: “drugs are categorically dangerous,” “all use constitutes abuse,” “marijuana inevitably leads to ‘hard’ drug use, addiction, lung cancer,” “boys who smoke marijuana will grow breasts,” to name a few. It didn’t matter if the information presented was based on science or myth. The sole goal was abstinence, and any approaches that veered from this message were censored. Furthermore, if coaxing didn’t work, the admonishments were backed up with “zero tolerance” policies with severe consequences. We are living with these consequences today, having witnessed an escalation in arrests unparalleled in American history — not to mention the mass incarceration of a generation of young black men.
Throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s, abstinence-only drug education programs, coupled with anti-drug campaigns that permeated the media, were the unquestioned norm in the United States. Yet by the mid-1990s, the results of survey data indicated that teen drug use had not declined. It was inching up. Indeed, many teens were not buying it, turning many of the messages into a joke.
By this time, my own children had entered adolescence. I wanted my children to abstain, but I had to be realistic. They, like other teens growing up in San Francisco, were going to be confronted with a range of psychoactive substances. They would need scientifically sound drug education that would enable them to make healthy decisions. In the end, their safety was my No. 1 priority.
Fortunately, at that time the concept of “harm reduction” drug education was emerging, largely abroad. This novel approach advocated abstinence while acknowledging the need for scientifically-based, safety-oriented information and positive strategies for those teens who were saying “maybe” or “sometimes” or even “yes.”
So whatever happened to “just say no”?
While conventional drug education has been slow to change, today there is a growing movement of parents and educators who understand the limitations of simplistic, albeit well-meaning, slogans. Even the new D.A.R.E. (“Keepin’ it Real“) has dispensed with “just say no.”
Three decades after Nancy Reagan’s famous advice, in schools and communities all over the country, parents and educators are embracing a new mantra. It’s “Just say know,” and offers, in addition to stressing the value of abstinence, reality-based information that teens trust. With marijuana legalization looming in California, and along with it a cultural shift in perspective, this new approach has the greatest promise for keeping our teens savvy, safe and truly educated.
Marsha Rosenbaum is the founder of the Safety First Project, a program of the Drug Policy Alliance.