Nancy Reagan's legacy includes the controversial 'Just Say No' program

The Takeaway
Nancy Reagan

Nancy Reagan waits to greet Republican presidential candidates in a replica of the Oval Office at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, before the Reagan Centennial GOP presidential primary debate in Simi Valley, California, September 7, 2011. 

Chris Carlson/Reuters

During her tenure, Nancy Reagan drew the nation's attention to the drug epidemic — the "Just Say No" campaign permeated popular culture at the time. Reagan, one of the most influential first ladies of the 20th century, died on Sunday at the age of 94.

But did her anti-drug message really work?

Carl Hart, the author of "High Price: Drugs, Neuroscience, and Discovering Myself” and a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Columbia University, says the “Just Say No” campaign was too simplistic and naive.

“Oftentimes people talk about the ‘War on Drugs’ and the ‘Just Say No’ mantra as being a failure,” says Hart. “It failed the majority of the American taxpayers, but for a number of people it’s been successful, and that’s why it continues. When I say that it’s been successful, it’s been successful in helping to create this environment in which any drug use is seen as being pathological. So that overly simplistic message, yeah, it certainly did not do a lot for drug education, but it did a hell of a lot for people who are currently making a lot of money off of the ‘War on Drugs.’”

Hart argues that the campaign pushed by the Reagan Administration and by Nancy Reagan herself was “horrible” for most Americans because it oversimplified the nature and realities surrounding drug use.

“When we think about [mantras like,] ‘Don’t start in the first place,’ there will be people who start, the concern is how do we prevent abuse and how do we educate people to not get in trouble with these sorts of things,” he says. “The notion that people won’t start, that’s naive and that’s dangerous actually.”

According to Hart, “Just Say No” pushed a narrow-minded policy platform that ignored the complex nuances associated with drug use, abuse and addiction, something that he says can be seen in the Reagans’ 1986 address to the nation.

“She was talking about us as a nation of being intolerant of people who use drugs,” Hart says. “That is just simply inappropriate, and that’s not what we want people to do — we don’t want people to be intolerant of a number of things, and certainly not drug use. Not that we want people to engage in drug use, but we have to understand that people will engage in drug use. Then the question becomes how do we keep people safe when they do engage.”

The “Just Say No” mantra has stuck over the years partly because the Reagans were such effective communicators, Hart says. When they spoke to America from a couch in the West Hall of the White House, they looked like “the national parents,” he says.

“They were excellent — I don’t think that’s a question,” Hart adds.

Even today, this Reagan-era policy has carried over, and Hart says that the focus remains on drugs as an object, not on the causes of drug abuse.

“The facts are this: The vast majority of people that use any of these drugs that we’re talking about don’t have a problem,” he says. “That tells you that the problem is not the drugs. The problem lies elsewhere.”

In Hart’s perspective, the problem of drug abuse is connected to opportunity and unemployment, and mental illnesses, among other things.

“When we think about the negative consequences that occurred as a result of this simplistic [‘Just Say No’] message, it has primarily decimated communities of color,” he says. “If those same sorts of negative effects were happening in white communities in this country, I assure you this thing would not be so prevalent today — this outdated message; this misinformed message; this message that has done so much harm. When you [ask], ‘Should they have known?’, they would have known if the consequences were with the constituents that they cared about.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.