by Daniel D. Maurer
Nancy Reagan has passed. I have to admit that at first the news was neither surprising nor particularly sorrowful for me. On the first count, she was 94 years old, after all. And on the second, I never cared for the politics her husband espoused very much. (Although, truth be told, I would take Ronald Reagan any day over the candidates the Republican Party seems to be churning out nowadays.)
But this piece isn't about the loss her family has to endure, nor is it addressing any political persuasion she did or didn't espouse.
I'm writing this essay to say she was right about one thing. If you lived during the Reagan years, you probably remember it.
Just Say No.
Just Say No of course refers to the often maligned (perhaps rightly so), government advertising campaign and now wholly accepted into the annals of 80s popular phraseology. Just Say No became a moniker for the so-called War on Drugs all throughout the 1980s. Nancy purportedly had first used the turn of words in 1982 at an elementary school in Longfellow, California when answering a student's question as to what best to say when someone offered her drugs.
The rest, they say, is history. Nancy Reagan's Just Say No became the national calling point around which the entire discussion of drug-use and abuse turned.
But you don't need to be a child of the eighties to see what a silly concept Just Say No was. I mean, we didn't really expect kids to follow what some government ad was telling us, did we?
Probably not, if all the campaign did was give a short catchphrase. Unfortunately, it became something much worse.
If Just Say No was the daughter of Nancy Reagan, then D.A.R.E. is the bastard cousin who happened to win the Miss Congeniality contest. Drug Abuse Resistance Education first became popular from a pilot program started coincidentally in the same city where the student asked Nancy Reagan her question—Los Angeles. Since its foundation, D.A.R.E. and DARE-like programs have been adopted in nearly 80% of the school districts in the United States.
The problem with that is D.A.R.E. simply doesn't work. Drug abuse is rampant and ubiquitous, and simplistic catchphrases and overly-basic formulas just aren't going to cut the mustard.
So . . . just how was Nancy Reagan right?
Nancy Reagan was right in that she had the right idea, but didn't take it far enough.
The fact is that something called The Social Norms Marketing Technique deals with drug-use and abuse quite effectively. It's based off the psychological phenomenon that human beings are notoriously lousy at estimating how widespread drug- or alcohol-use is or isn't. As it turns out, moderate-use or full abstinence from drugs or alcohol is more prevalent in young adults than most people realize.
Nancy Reagan was a caring person and a fine human being. She saw the difficult aftermath that drug abuse produced, and responded with an answer that was not only empathetic, but also actually the foundation upon which more effective techniques like Social Norms Marketing are built—it's not only okay to say no, more people do it than we realize!
I share stories of people's transformations with this blog. Personally, I've experienced the hell of addiction, but an incredible life-change as well. I have found a new freedom in Twelve Step recovery. For other folks, different modalities of recovery have proven effective. Some actually have more evidence-based scientific efficacy than groups which use Twelve Step recovery like AA or NA, whose tradition of anonymity isn't exactly conducive to study.
Personally, I don't care how you get sober, just as long as you find a life change that works for you. Sometimes, that's no change at all. The freedom I espouse in Transformation is Real is that I don't have all the answers. And I discover new changes all the time!
Just Say No may not have been an effective policy, but Nancy's heart was in the right place. Ironically, if her well meaning had been taken a bit farther, history may have played out differently. At least the failed, "war on drugs" wouldn't have been a complete waste.