Nancy Reagan: RIP, A Legacy of Contrast and Consequences

Today is a sad day in American history.

It marks the end of an era.   Nancy Reagan, wife of the late President Ronald Reagan, died at her home in Bel Air of complications related to congestive heart failure at the age of 94.   Many are mourning and celebrating her life. She brought Hollywood glamour to the White House.    She brought an inimitable mark of style, elegance and class, not seen since Camelot,  that characterized her reign as first lady.   Historians already acknowledge the role she adopted behind the scenes, as a protector of her husband’s well-being following his near assassination attempt and as Alzheimer’s disease began to interfere with his work and  life.   She was less the adoring and demure wife, the public face she presented to a country not yet ready for a modern woman.    She commanded the respect of the president’s closest advisers and inner circle, who dared not cross her.   If they did, they would assuredly face unceremonious replacement.   Even still, a few are highlighting her understated and previously uncredited role in her husband’s legacy as a catalyst for normalizing relations with Soviet Union.     She was not just glamorous, but she insightful, strong, smart and powerful, more than people realized.

By contrast, she is also known for a seminal campaign whose effects are still being felt today.  The campaign was “Just Say No”, and  it was the newest front in the “War on Drugs” and  geared to address the growing problem of drug abuse in America.   Although cynics consider this campaign, a deliberate attempt to reform the image of the first lady as being consumed by expensive designer gowns at a time when the economy was in a recession, objectively, it was designed to fix a growing problem in America that was seemingly refractory to correction.   The  “Just Say No” campaign involved the use of peer pressure and the development of social skills by young people to de-glamorize and dissuade young them doing illegal drugs.   Policy action complemented the campaign to include “Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act of 1986.   Educational programs like D.A.R.E  (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) saw  law enforcement officers visiting classrooms, in a concerted effort nationwide, to educate children about the evils, ‘un-coolness’ dangers of drugs.

The unintended effect of bringing up the discussion of drugs may have been to expose more curious minds to drugs.   The introduction of police presence into schools, although a reasonable idea, led to a wave of student arrests not only for drug possession infractions, but also for minor school code infractions unrelated to drugs.     The result was a pipeline of mass incarceration, with a propensity for minority kids,  from the school yard to the prison yard, that may not have occurred if the campaign had been executed differently and if the policy had been administered with additional foresight.

On what basis can it be said that the “Just Say No” campaign failed?  The statistics confirm it.   Drug abuse,  addiction numbers, and deaths from overdose seemed to explode markedly, either in spite of or because of the campaign.   Incarceration rates for minor and major drug offenses increased due to the heightened awareness and priority given to the War on Drugs, which ironically may have destroyed as many or more lives, as did the abuse and addiction it sought to curb.

Thankfully, there is now a greater realization of the past failures of improperly criminalizing or over-criminalizing drug use.  in 2016 America, there are now states which have legal access to recreational and medical marijuana.    And of course, there are states which do not.     In either regard, there is a greater awareness and appreciation for the need for rehabilitation and treatment strategies, as well as sensible law-enforcement strategies, as opposed to simply locking anyone and everyone away, and throwing away the key.

Whatever the original motivation and intent, Nancy Reagan’s “just Say No” campaign was probably an essential event in America’ s “War on Drugs”, that will permit a sensible solution to drug abuse in our communities.  Sometimes, you have to move backward and redirect in order to move forward.

No matter how you parse it, Nancy Reagan helped us.

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