The “Just Say No” movement was one part of the U.S. government’s effort to revisit and expand the War on Drugs. As with most anti-drug initiatives, Just Say No—which became an American catch phrase in the 1980s—evoked both support and criticism from the public.
The 80s Crack Epidemic
In the early 80s, a cheap, highly addictive form of cocaine known as “crack” was first developed.
The popularity of crack led to an increase in the number of Americans who became addicted to cocaine. In 1985, the number of people who said they used cocaine on a routine basis increased from 4.2 million to 5.8 million. By 1987, crack was reportedly available in all but four states.
Emergency room visits for cocaine-related incidents increased four-fold between 1984 and 1987.
The crack epidemic particularly devastated African American communities—crime and incarceration rates among this population soared during the 1980s.
Reagan and the War on Drugs
When President Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he vowed to crack down on substance abuse and reprioritize the War on Drugs, which was originally initiated by President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s.
In 1986, Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act. This law allotted $1.7 billion to continue fighting the War on Drugs, and established mandatory minimum prison sentences for specific drug offenses.
During the Reagan years, prison penalties for drug crimes skyrocketed, and this trend continued for many years. In fact, the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997.
Say No to Drugs
President Reagan’s wife, Nancy Reagan, launched the “Just Say No” campaign, which encouraged children to reject experimenting with or using drugs by simply saying the word “no.”
The movement started in the early 1980s and continued for more than a decade.
Nancy Reagan traveled the country to endorse the campaign, appearing on television news programs, talk shows and public service announcements. The first lady also visited drug rehabilitation centers to promote Just Say No.
Surveys suggest the campaign may have led to a spike in public concern over the country’s drug problem. In 1985, the proportion of Americans who saw drug abuse as the nation’s “number one problem,” was between 2 percent and 6 percent. In 1989, that number jumped to 64 percent.
In 1983, the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Daryl Gates, and the Los Angeles Unified School District started the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program.
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The program, which still exists today, pairs students with local police officers in an effort to reduce drug use, gang membership and violence. Students learn about the dangers of substance abuse and are required to take a pledge to stay away from drugs and gangs.
D.A.R.E. has been implemented in about 75 percent of U.S. school districts.
Despite the program’s popularity, several studies have shown participating in D.A.R.E has little impact on future drug use.
A study funded by the Department of Justice, which was released in 1994, revealed that partaking in D.A.R.E led to only short-term reductions in the use of tobacco but had no impact on alcohol or marijuana use.
In 2001, the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. David Satcher, put D.A.R.E in the category of “ineffective primary prevention programs.”
Proponents of D.A.R.E have called some of the studies flawed and say surveys and personal accounts reveal that the program does in fact have a positive effect on future drug use.
In recent years, D.A.R.E has adopted a new “hands-on” curriculum, which advocates believe is showing better results than more outdated approaches to curbing drug abuse.
Support and Criticism for the Anti-Drug War
Determining whether the War on Drugs movement was a success or failure depends on whom you ask.
Supporters of the strict drug initiatives say the measures reduced crime, increased public awareness and lowered rates of substance abuse.
Some research does, in fact, suggest that some aspects of the tough policies may have worked. A study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that in 1999, 14.8 million Americans used illicit drugs. In 1979, there were 25 million users.
However, critics say the 1980s version of the War on Drugs put too much emphasis on deterrence tactics and not enough focus on drug treatment and substance abuse programs.
Another common criticism is that the laws led to mass incarceration for nonviolent crimes. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 2.3 million people are currently being held in the American criminal justice system. Nearly half a million people are locked up because of a drug offense.
Many people also felt the Reagan-era policies unfairly targeted minorities. Part of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act included a heftier penalty, known as the “100-to-1 sentencing ratio,” for the same amount of crack cocaine (typically used by blacks) as powdered cocaine (typically used by whites). For example, a minimum penalty of five years was given for 5 grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of powdered cocaine.
Minority communities were more heavily policed and targeted, leading to a disproportionate rate of criminalization. But the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), which was passed by Congress in 2010, reduced the discrepancy between crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100:1 to 18:1.
There is perhaps one thing both supporters and critics of the 1980s drug war can agree on: The policies and laws put into place during the Just Say No era created a drug-focused political agenda that still impacts many Americans today.