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?

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.

But the pro-pot tide rolled out in the '80s and '90s. Baby Boomers didn't stay young forever. They got married and had kids. For parents who wanted their teenage children to go to college and grasped that doing well on the SAT was essential, allowing their young charges to live a Spicoli-like existence seemed like the height of irresponsibility.

Into this vacuum stepped Nancy Reagan’s campaign. At its height in the mid-'90s, the Just Say No Foundation had more than 1 million members and affiliates in 12 countries, according to Cohen. There was a theme song and an annual rally in May. In 1996, fewer Americans (25 percent) told Gallup they supported the legalization of the drug than in 1977 (28 percent). As Michael Massing, the author of The Fix, an acclaimed 1998 book on the drug wars, concluded, "Based on the numbers, Nancy Reagan's crusade against marijuana certainly seemed to be paying off."

So if middle-class moms’ aspiration for their children’s future in the meritocracy is a real factor, why have many parents stopped protesting pot?

One likely answer is they have less incentive to protest: Fewer high-school kids smoke regularly. In 1978, nearly two in five high-school seniors (37.1 percent) said they had used marijuana in the previous 30 days, according to the University of Michigan’s annual Monitoring the Future survey. Last year, barely more than one in five (22.7) said they had. This figure has changed little since the mid-'90s.

Another likely answer for the decline of the parents movement is the success of medical marijuana. Talk with anti-pot leaders, and to a person they say the advent of medical pot in the mid-'90s reoriented the debate. Sue Rusche, co-founder of National Families in Action, said the tide turned after “three billionaires stepped forward—George Soros, Peter Lewis, and John Sperling—and funded so-called medical marijuana.” Like Lowe and Cohen, Rusche suggested that medical marijuana changed the national conversation over weed from a behavioral issue involving teenagers to a quality-of-life one involving mostly adults.

The decline in teenagers' use from the 1970s and '80s has been mirrored in the movies. Take a list such as Yahoo's "Top 25 Stoner Films of All Time." The only two films that depicted high-school students pot use realistically either were set or filmed before the era of "Just Say No," not only Fast Times at Ridgemont High but also Dazed and Confused. Subsequent stoner films have portrayed characters after they graduate from high school, such as the two Harold and Kumar films.

Scholars agree. As Jonathan P. Caulkins, a former co-director of Rand’s Drug Policy Research Center, wrote in Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, “The big change in marijuana consumption over the last half dozen years does not pertain to youth. Rather, it is the very substantial increase in the number of adults who use marijuana daily or near daily.” The share of adults who use pot regularly has risen to 8 percent from 7 percent in 2006. Also, the share of adults who have tried pot has risen to 38 percent from 24 percent in 1977.

The increase in the share of adults who have used pot has also made Americans more accepting of the drug. As William Galston and E.J. Dionne Jr. pointed out in a Brookings study last May, “demographic change and widespread public experience using marijuana imply that opposition to legalization will never again return to the levels seen in the 1980s.”

Galston and Dionne’s point is fair. Middle-class moms’ status anxieties about pot might be allayed if states impose and enforce strict laws that make it difficult for teenagers to obtain pot. (In fact, campaigners in states that legalized marijuana in 2012 specifically targeted moms in their advertisements.) The record of Colorado, one of two states where the recreational use of small amounts of weed is legal, likely will be important. On March 17, Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law two bills to protect children from pot, requiring child-proof packaging for edible marijuana, empowering pot retailers to confiscate fake IDs, and mandating that adults who grow marijuana ensure it is enclosed and locked. But if Colorado and Washington, the other state where recreational pot is legal, cannot stop teens from getting their hands on good dope, expect more middle-class moms to rise up in protest.

Beckett, the anti-pot activist in San Diego, is a good example. She is a Baby Boomer who won’t say if she smoked pot while growing up. (“I would say back in the old days it was 2 percent THC. Today it’s 20 percent THC,” she said.) Her attitude to the prevalence of medical and recreational pot in her city quivers on the horizon of despair. But ask her about what it will take to shake up the status quo, and she sounds like Carla Lowe. "When more and more kids start using, that's unfortunately what it might take for their parents to wake up and see the harm that this is causing."