What Ever Happened to 'Just Say No'?

Once a juggernaut, the Nancy Reagan-helmed campaign has almost disappeared. But does that mean opposition to marijuana legalization is gone too?
Seth Anderson/Flickr

One day in 1982, Carla Lowe received a phone call from a teacher at her son’s high school. “Your son had a bong in his locker,” the teacher told her. "I had noooo idea. He said, 'Mom, it's not mine. It's John's, the superintendent's son,'" she said. 

If Lowe had asked her son’s peers for their reaction, they might have chuckled. A generation of middle-class schoolboys thought of smoking grass as illegal and sketchy but also as kind of cool and funny. “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine,” Sean Penn’s legendary character, Jeff Spicoli, told the store clerk in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The line had more than a ring of truth—the movie was based on Cameron Crowe’s book about spending the 1978-79 school year undercover at a San Diego high school.

Lowe’s reaction to news that her son smoked dope was not only incredulity but also horror. As a K-12 substitute teacher in a school district outside Sacramento, California, she saw the effects of pot smoking in the classroom firsthand: Scraggly-haired students would sit in the back of class and laugh; although polite, they were oblivious to the lessons and their schoolwork. Didn’t these kids know they were at risk of falling behind in school or, worse, becoming dropouts? In an age in which your success in life was determined increasingly by the scores you received on a standardized test you took as a teenager, Lowe thought smoking pot was practically the worst decision a high-school kid could make.

Lowe wanted a better life for her kids. She was not one of these carefree, stay-at-home Sandy Duncan-type moms. She was sensitive to her status in life. She had gone to Berkeley in the '50s, before the California’s flagship university became a countercultural mecca. Her classmates tended to be the most diligent students from California rather than the brainiest students from the nation as a whole. Graduates were more likely to raise a large family; Lowe and her husband had five children of their own. This period at Berkeley was more local than national, democratic than meritocratic, and socially conservative than socially liberal. She loved it. "The '50s were a great time to grow up. We had a great education," she enthused.

Lowe's later commitment to the anti-drug movement was unusually deep; among various accomplishments, she founded a political nonprofit that helped defeat California's pro-legalization initiative in 2010. But talk with anti-pot leaders and you find that many have a horror story about their children experimenting with marijuana. For them, pot is nothing less than a mortal threat to the success of their kids in schools and to a berth in the middle class. Marcie Beckett, an activist and a mother of two teenage boys in San Diego, described the problem this way: "I've seen grades plummet; I've seen kids not go to college, not hold a job."

In the late '70s and early '80s, middle-class moms' status anxieties about their kids' future in the meritocracy fueled a powerful social movement and campaign. First Lady Nancy Reagan became the public face of "Just Say No" after she made a trip to a New York ad agency in October 1983. She watched a demonstration of an anti-drug campaign from the Ad Council, the major charity of the advertising industry. Parents were told to "(g)et involved with drugs before your children do." And school children were told that drug use and academic success don't mix. As one print ad, with the title "School Daze," put it: "School is tough enough without having to try to learn through a mind softened by drugs.  So get the education you deserve. And learn how to say no to drugs." According to The New York Times, Nancy Reagan approved: "Both of these themes are exactly right.”

Reagan is still alive at the ripe old age of 92. But her campaign against the Jeff Spicolis of the world is dead. And her “movement has evaporated,” as Ivy G. Cohen, the former president of the Just Say No Foundation, noted. Several large nonprofit groups—Families in Action and the foundation itself—either have been renamed or merged with other organizations. Other nonprofits, such as the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, disbanded.

Whatever you think of "Just Say No," its decline has warped the debate over the legalization of marijuana in this country. It has contributed to the fuzzy notion that generational replacement is and will be the driving force in American attitudes toward pot. "Millennials are at the forefront of the recent rise in public support for same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana," Pew Research concluded in a March report. Older Americans who oppose pot are dying off, the report added.

Last October, 58 percent of Americans told Gallup they supported the legalization of marijuana. The figure was a record high. Yet the number may be misleading. If the previous half century is any guide, generational replacement has acted as a tidal rather than an unstoppable force on American attitudes about pot.

In the '70s, as the Baby Boomers came of age, the pro-pot tide rolled in. Eleven states, including California and Colorado, decriminalized it. And public support for full legalization doubled from 14 percent 1969 to 28 percent in 1977, according to Gallup.

Presented by

Mark Stricherz is the Washington bureau chief for The Colorado Observer and the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue.

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