'Just Say No' Pioneer Nancy Reagan Dies At Age 94

By McCarton Ackerman 03/07/16

The influential former First Lady was responsible for launching one of the biggest global anti-drug campaigns of all time.

'Just Say No' Pioneer Nancy Reagan Dies At Age 94
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Former actress and First Lady Nancy Reagan passed away on Sunday after suffering congestive heart failure. She was 94 years old.

The wife of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan will perhaps be best remembered for her “Just Say No” campaign to keep teenagers from using drugs. She launched the initiative in 1982 and feverishly toured the world promoting its message, sparking a grassroots movement that led to more than 12,000 “Just Say No” clubs in the U.S. and abroad. She also hosted two international conferences on drug use, including one at the United Nations in 1985. By the fall of that year, she had promoted Just Say No on 23 talk shows and even made a cameo appearance on a March 1983 episode of Diff'rent Strokes.

“Our job is never easy because drug criminals are ingenious. They work everyday to plot a new and better way to steal our children’s lives, just as they’ve done by developing this new drug, crack. For every door that we close, they open a new door to death,” she infamously said in 1986. “Say yes to your life. And when it comes to drugs and alcohol, just say no.”

Although it was never proven that the Just Say No campaign directly sparked a reduction in substance abuse, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan did confirm that drug use among young people declined significantly during the ‘80s. The number of high school seniors who used marijuana dropped from 50.1% in 1978 to 36% in 1987, while cocaine use declined from 12% to 10% during this same time period, and psychedelic drug use fell from 11% to 6%. (These figures can be found in Nancy Reagan: On the White House Stage by James G. Benze.)

However, Just Say No also sparked less-than-desirable results. In 2014, the Scientific American reported that teens enrolled in Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), the most widespread educational program to come under the initiative, were just as likely to use drugs as those who were not. Decades later, even staunch Republicans like Sarah Palin conceded that the goals of the campaign simply weren’t realistic.

The former First Lady's initiative also sparked a fear that young people would abuse drugs—this led to the creation of drug-free zones around schools and the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act in 1986, resulting in a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol or drugs found on public school grounds. Black and Hispanic teenagers became far more likely to be arrested at school for drug possession or selling, leading to a disproportionately large number of minorities in the U.S. prison system.

But despite this, Reagan's goal of increasing awareness of drug abuse had been accomplished. By the end of the ‘80s, national polls showed that a majority of Americans believed that drug abuse was the most serious issue in the country.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.