The passing of Nancy Reagan, who spearheaded the 'Just Say No' campaign as first lady, provides an opportune moment for reflecting on the failures of the War on Drugs and need for a changed approach at a time when news headlines are warning of a growing heroin "epidemic."
Nancy took up the anti-drug crusade in 1983 after she had received bad press for spending taxpayer dollars on fancy White House china. Starting at an elementary school in Oakland, California, the 'Just Say No' campaign resulted in the formation of 10,000 nationwide clubs which sponsored public parades, telephone hotlines and a national walk against drugs. Nancy also appeared on popular television shows like Different Strokes and Punky Brewster which integrated anti-drug themes into the episodes.
The 'Just Say No' crusade was as much political as anything else. Ronald Reagan made his political career attacking the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s, which had adopted drug use as a symbol of rebellion. The War on Drugs was very much part of a conservative ideological offensive designed to restore the climate of conformity and patriotism of the post-World War II era and eradicate the 1960s movements and progressive changes they ushered in.
A major problem with the 'Just Say No' campaign was its promotion of a universally demonized conception of drugs, including of marijuana, which was falsely branded as a gateway drug that would inevitably lead to harder drug use. Scientific American reported in 2014 that studies showed students need a much more nuanced education and that students in 'Just Say No'-style programs were as likely to use drugs as students who were not.
Nancy was herself known to issue bombastic statements about drugs that discredited the credibility of her voice. She once for example characterized casual drug users as "accomplices to murder." Feeding off this kind of rhetoric, others went so far as to call for the "beheading of drug dealers" (William Bennet, drug czar under George H.W. Bush) and "shooting of casual drug users" (LAPD chief, Daryl Gates). In 1986 and 1988, Congress passed billion dollar anti-drug bills mandating urine testing for all federal workers and establishing harsh mandatory minimum sentencing regulations, which resulted in the mass incarceration boom that is now widely condemned. Reflecting the prevailing political climate which Nancy did so much to shape, Senator Claude Pepper (D-FL) said that "we're close to the point now where you could put an amendment through to hang, quarter and draw drug dealers."
Under the terms of the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, possession with intent to sell five grams of crack, a drug primarily of inner-city blacks, carried a mandatory five year sentence, compared to 10 to thirty seven months for similar amounts for cocaine, the "champagne drug of the rich." The discrepancy has resulted in what Michelle Alexander referred to as the "new Jim Crow" in which African-Americans have been forced to bear the brunt of the nation's imprisonment binge.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan signed a national security directive identifying drug production and trafficking as threats to American security. This led to ramped up financing of the military and police forces of regimes targeting so-called "narco-guerrillas" and terrorists who were blamed for the bulk of the drug supply entering the United States. The latter term helped justify a merger of U.S. counter-narcotic and counter-insurgency operations which contributed to marked human rights abuses. Supply rates were little affected all-the-while as the CIA supported right-wing military officers in Central America, for example, and mujahidin drug traffickers in Afghanistan who used drug proceeds to finance counterinsurgency and terrorist activities. Nicaraguan Contra operatives were even found to have smuggled drugs into the United States through Mena Arkansas, under the nose of then Governor Bill Clinton, as part of clandestine operations which Nancy helped her husband cover-up.
In an important study on the War on Drugs, sociologists Craig G. Reinarman and Harry G. Levine noted that the drug issue in the 1980s served as a "godsend to the political right," as it enabled them to blame an array of social problems on "deviant individuals and then expand the net of social control and imprison those people for causing the problems." Forgotten, Reinarman and Levine said, "are the failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years." The War on Drugs ultimately helped to transform American society from a welfare state to a police and prison state in which individual civil liberties have been eroded, and foreign policy was continuously militarized.
Whatever personal qualities and grace she may have brought to the White House, Nancy's legacy is connected to her signature crusade. Her passing provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the failed governmental priorities of the past, and to in turn advance more steadily towards a future in which kids are given grounded scientific information about drugs, addicts are not stigmatized, and in which drugs are treated as a public health problem and not one requiring military solutions.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Massachusetts, 2009) and Modernizing Repression: Police Training and nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012).