Why “Just Say No” Was a Failure

On September 14th 1986, first Lady Nancy Reagan joined her husband in a television broadcast that addressed the nation asking them to “Just Say No” to drugs. This was the start of her campaign to help eradicate the blight that was drug addiction in this nation and it set a ball in motion that destroyed any chance for real and lasting change to occur in this country, regarding drug addiction.

The basis of the campaign was a continuation of the War on Drugs that started during the Nixon administration in the 1970’s, which proved to be an abysmal failure from the start. Her stance, and by proxy, the government’s stance towards drug addiction was that all a person needed to do was just say no. If they were offered drugs, just say no, which not only oversimplified an increasingly complex issue but also allowed the perpetuation of the myth that drug addiction is a choice. It created a national dialogue where there were people who made good choices, by saying no to drugs and people who made bad choices, by saying yes to drugs. It didn’t allow for any shade of gray or even the remote possibility that drug addiction was a compulsive act beyond the control of the person afflicted, and in doing so, it created an “other” out of the drug addict, which caused the criminalization of their disease.

In war, as the war on drugs is so aptly named, there must be an enemy and in order to create an enemy, you must first dehumanize the group and set them apart from the masses, or in other words, create an “other” out of them. When this is accomplished, it allows for blanket statements in regards to that group to be considered gospel and any punishment they receive becomes justified and acceptable. This is sometimes done on purpose in order to push forth a national agenda that may be counter-intuitive to the prosperity of its people, and sometimes it is done out of negligence as was the case with Nancy’s Reagan’s campaign. She dehumanized the drug addict, which normalized the thinking that drug addicts should be in jail because they are bad people, who made bad choices. After this occurred, we then as nation, followed suit and embarked on one of the most socially irresponsible and fiscally expensive endeavors our nation has ever seen.

Since it’s inception, we have spent nearly a Trillion dollars on the War on Drugs and it has netted us absolutely nothing, but the destruction of many sick people’s lives, immigration policy that is based on fear, and an addiction to pharmaceuticals unrivaled by anything we have ever seen. Last year, opioid overdoses were on the rise and while the number of people who are addicted to drugs has somewhat stabilized over the past ten years, the amount of deaths and incarcerations continue to increase.

war on drugs

Even though Nancy Reagan may have meant well with her 1986 address to the nation, she made a common mistake that we have seen with so many other social issues throughout our history, that is:

  • She spoke about something she knew nothing of.
  • She knew nothing about what drug addiction was truly like.
  • She had no idea how it was not some moral failing or choice but rather was an illness that has its basis in social and environmental factors and has a biological component as well.
  • She could not understand that to people who have an addiction, saying no is not an option a lot of the time because if they were capable of saying no, addiction wouldn’t exist.

In having no idea what she was saying, Nancy Reagan made another error that caused the failure of this campaign; she attempted to simplify the complexity of the human experience into a three-word answer. We attempt to do it all of the time when it comes to social issues in this country and in doing so, we do not allow for real dialogue, one that leaves us uncomfortable and experiencing cogitative dissonance. We attempt to make everything fit into a polaric system where there are one of two ways to think about it. Something is good or something is bad. Something is us or something is them, and doing this has caused a great deal of misunderstanding and pain for many people throughout the history of humanity. Doing this has resulted in just about all of the social issues we see in the world today because we just want bite-sized answers and not lengthy diatribes on how things really are.

So now we are now left to pick up the pieces of her failure. We are now left with a Trillion less dollars, millions of lives lost or ruined, and a private prison system that feeds off the weakness of its inhabitants. But with that said, we have learned an important and valuable lesson. We have learned what does not work.

We have learned that criminalizing drug addiction and a puritanical unbending view of addiction is the perfect way to create more addiction. We have begun to learn that drug addiction is not something that can be fought in a traditional sense of the word. That police action only tends to hurt users and our laws affect those who are supplying the drugs to street-level dealers very rarely. We have also begun to learn that when they are caught, it only creates a power vacuum that is filled with hundreds of people vying for the top spot. We have begun to understand that heaping guilt on top of the drug addict prolongs addiction and creates a scenario where people are less apt to get help.

These are the reasons why Just Say No was a failure. It didn’t take into account the humanity of the drug addict and it didn’t allow for people to really be helped. So 30 years on, we have finally started to change the rhetoric and hopefully as we continue to learn more about the nature of drug addiction and how it affects the nation as a whole, we will continue to find ways that actually work, and actually produce a desired change.

Following Suggestions and Seeking Treatment

If you find that when you try to stop drinking or using drugs you cannot, then you may need to seek treatment for your addiction. It is normal to have misgivings about going away for treatment and Dream Center for Recovery understands your fears. Our trained staff is here to help you through the process of early recovery and show you the way to a happy long-term sobriety. So call us today at 1-877-978-3148.