Pubdate: Mon, 07 Mar 2016
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2016 Los Angeles Times
Authors: Joe Mozingo, Sonali Kohli and Zahira Torres


Anti- Drug Campaign Was Praised by Some, Dismissed by Others

Drugs already had a strong grip in Compton High School when Maple 
Cornwell became assistant principal in 1983. Crack cocaine was just 
making its debut.

Educators had few tools to fight what would quickly turn into an epidemic.

Into this void came the voice of Nancy Reagan, with a message for 
children around the nation: "Just Say No."

The campaign against drugs became Reagan's most memorable achievement 
- - lauded by some for showing the destruction addiction wrought, 
condemned by others who say it helped lead to mass incarceration and 
demonized black communities, and shrugged off by many who thought the 
message was naively simplistic and ineffectual.

"I don't think students really got the message," Cornwell said.

She said the pull of drugs was just too strong: "I think once drugs 
started to come in, it just took over students' mind-sets, it took 
over their goals."

 From the early days of her husband's presidency, Nancy Reagan 
decided to focus on the anti-drug cause. She said she came up with 
the name of her campaign at a meeting with schoolchildren in Oakland, 
when a girl asked her, ' Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody 
offers you drugs?' "

"Just say no," the first lady replied.

Schools around the country formed "Just Say No" clubs, in which 
students did community service and made pledges to not try drugs. The 
refrain became the mantra of the anti-drug movement and greatly 
raised Reagan's profile as f irst lady. She appeared on hit shows 
such as "Dynasty" and "Diff 'rent Strokes" to deliver her message and 
made hundreds of appearances around the country.

"Without Nancy Reagan, there would not have been the public climate 
to support drug abuse prevention," said Ivy Cohen, president of the 
Just Say No Foundation from 1987 to 1997. "She galvanized attention 
to the issue."

In 1981, when President Reagan took office, more than 1.3 million 
people tried cocaine for the f irst time, according to estimates from 
the Office of National Drug Control Policy. In 1991, that number was 
down to below 500,000.

Dr. Herbert Kleber, director emeritus of the Columbia University 
Division on Substance Abuse, said tolerance of drugs in the 1960s and 
1970s had led to vast abuse. Even among circles of professionals in 
staid suburbia, lines of cocaine were laid out at parties much as 
their parents had mixed highballs.

Kleber said Reagan's campaign probably helped change public opinion a 
notch, but many other factors did as well. The death of college 
basketball player Len Bias of a cocaine overdose in 1986 shocked many 
people unaware of the stimulant's dangers. And the crack cocaine 
epidemic and the gang warfare that came with it ripped apart 
neighborhoods and revealed to America deeply destructive aspects of 
illegal drug use.

"My experience is ' Just Say No' wasn't terribly effective," Kleber 
said. "But it was better than not doing it."

In 1989, no longer first lady, Reagan came to Los Angeles to boost 
her image as an anti-drug crusader. With dozens of reporters in tow, 
she and Police Chief Daryl F. Gates watched as officers stormed a 
suspected "rock house" in South Los Angeles.

Police arrested 14 men and women on a variety of drug charges and 
allegedly confiscated about a gram of crack. Officers gave her a tour 
of the house before she retired to an air-conditioned RV, "freshened 
her makeup and then waded out among the cameras," according to a Times story.

"I saw people on the floor, rooms that were unfurnished ... all very 
depressing," the former first lady reported.

Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy 
Alliance, a New York City group working to end the war on drugs, said 
"Just Say No" was part of an unrealistic goal of a "drug-free 
society" that led to mass incarceration in minority communities and 
beyond, "something we're only beginning to recover from now."

He said Reagan's message might have resonated with younger children, 
but not the adolescents who needed to understand the realities of 
drugs. "The ' Just Say No' campaign made about as much sense as a 
just-say-no campaign with respect to sex education," he said.

"Teachers, educators, the government, parents need to provide 
something other than an abstinence-only message for the majority of 
young people who do in fact end up trying, experimenting or using 
drugs before they turn 18."

In Compton, instead of "Just Say No" clubs, Cornwell and other 
teachers tried to combat drug use among students by connecting with 
them one-on-one, and starting clubs or activities that kept them busy 
after school. She said that the problem was serious, but that a 
minority of students were drug users.

Others say the message resonated. In Northridge, Napa Street 
Elementary School Principal Brenda Fernandez said the slogan became a 
regular and serious topic of conversation with her parents, and 
guided her as a child.

Now, Fernandez, 44, said it resonates with her students. Last week, 
her school teamed up with the Los Angeles Police Department's 
baseball team for a "Just Say No" program that expanded on Reagan's 
message, asking students to take pledges against drugs, gangs, crime 
and bullying.

Fernandez said not everyone will identify with the slogan but its 
simplicity allows educators to reinforce important topics with children.

"It was such a part of our culture that it's been one of those things 
that's ingrained in us," Fernandez said. "It's just one of those 
catch phrases that will be part of us for ages to come."

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom