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About the 1980's Just Say No Campaign

About the 1980's Just Say No Campaign

Just Say No was the slogan for an anti-drug campaign in the 1980s. The slogan was thought up by 1980s ad executives and championed by Nancy Reagan as the catch-all solution to what she thought was biggest issue in America: drug use.


At the outset of the campaign, only 2-6% of Americans agreed with Mrs. Reagan about drugs being the #1 issue in America. By the end of the campaign, she had stirred up enough worry in the American populace to see that number rise to 67%. It remains unknown whether drugs were really the big issue all along and were brought to light because of the campaign, or whether the campaign was so much ado about nothing that it essentially created the issue it was attempting to solve.


Regardless, Nancy Reagan credits a 1980 trip to New York as the inspiration behind her identity-making anti-drug efforts. It was after her husband Ronald, spokesperson for Chesterfield Cigarettes, was sworn in as President that the couple made it their mission to wage a War on Drugs—a war which is still raging on today and which has proven to be a lopsided beatdown of innocent Americans by their prison-happy government.

Ronald Reagan Chesterfield Cigarette Ad

 

The Just Say No campaign was a singular propaganda effort focused on reducing drug use among the youth and engendering a nation-wide anti-drug attitude that was vastly oversimplified: one that said “drugs are a non-issue for our citizens, all you need to do is say no.” Within the larger context of the War on Drugs, this campaign was Nancy Reagan’s brainchild and the defining mark of her first ladyship

Nancy Reagan Just Say No Football Jersey

 

Nancy Reagan lended her voice and face to the campaign on multiple occasions, hoping her genteel image would lend some credibility to a campaign slogan as ridiculous as Just Say No. She appeared on people’s staticky TV sets and spoke to them in their living rooms with a refined elegance, ensuring them that the answer was as simple as a two-letter word. All the while war waged on in the streets, as the government poured money into the prison infrastructure they needed in order to fit in all the law-abiding citizens that they were reclassifying as criminals.


But it wasn’t just Nancy Reagan single-handedly turning the tides of public opinion: the list of other mouthpieces for the Just Say No campaign was a who’s who of 1980s celebrities. From movie stars such David Hasselhoff to musicians such as Michael Jackson (featuring the Flintstones!), the campaign was being funneled into the ears of every American. Nancy Reagan even managed to get the 1980s LA Lakers to quit their incessant partying long enough to record a 4-minute rap song encouraging people to "Just Say No." 

Michael Jackson Just Say No Flintstones Appearance

 

With seemingly every celebrity parroting Reagan’s slogan, it is no surprise that the campaign gained traction and became the iconic catchphrase that we at Paz Packs now echo, albeit with more cynicism and introspection this go-round. The Just Say No campaign became wildly popular in the 1980s, but has since seen a souring of public opinion in favor of its more effective—or at least less shameful—counterpart, the D.A.R.E. program. 


Whereas the Just Say No campaign offered nothing beyond a catchphrase, the DARE offshoot actually had substance: it was (and is) all about educating the youth about drugs by pairing them with real-life first responders. Now whether this is the right way to go about instilling the youth with anti-drug, pro-health sentiments is up for debate, but one thing is for sure: DARE did more (or at least tried to do more) good for the anti-drug movement than Just Say No did, but neither of them accomplished any resounding successes in their fight to reduce drug use.

D.A.R.E. Campaign Logo and Slogan

 

In fact, DARE has been the subject of multiple studies that show it has little-to-no success in reducing tobacco use among adolescents, and practically no success in reducing drug and alcohol use. Unsurprisingly, the Just Say No campaign had even less success in changing the behavior of Americans at-large.

 

You may hear from staunch supporters of the Just Say No campaign that it was a success, and they will likely point to the lower rates of illicit drug use following the campaign as the signal of this success. However, one could argue that the drastic increases in both drug-related deaths and drug-related incarcerations offset these lowered rates of drug use. After all, of course there will be reduced drug use during the time when everyone who uses drugs is either locked up or left out to dry.


The US government offered an ultimatum: either say no to drugs, or deal with the harsh consequences on your own, with no social safety net or support systems. Our government criminalized and imprisoned drug addicts and infrequent users alike. They offered no help in terms of rehabilitation or treatment. They made the decision to build more jails instead of treatment centers; to hire more prison guards than medical professionals; and to insult the intelligence of Americans everywhere by offering them a slogan somehow even more reductive than it is ridiculous.

US Correctional Facility Population, 1980-2013

 

By reigniting the conversation around the Just Say No campaign of the 1980s, we at Paz Packs hope to raise money and awareness for the issues surrounding the War on Drugs: reforming our nation’s public policies, resolving mass incarceration, removing the injustices from our justice system, and revamping our support systems for those who struggle with addiction and other health issues.


Drug use is not a criminal offense, it’s a health issue. It’s about time for our government to recognize that its current outdated policies are more harmful than helpful, and that you can’t win the War on Drugs with how it’s currently being waged. The way to win the War on Drugs is to invest in the individual people who struggle with drug use, and to provide stabilizing support for addicts whose lives blend and blur, distorting their desires and rearranging their realities. No one wants to be at the mercy of drugs: it’s time to stop treating drug users like criminals, and time to start giving them the resources they may need to recover and reorient their lives in the right direction.

 

WHEN & WHY The JUST SAY NO CAMPAIGN BEGAN

Just Say No was a slogan created by ad executives in the early 1980s, and used in an anti-drug campaign spearheaded by Nancy Reagan. Her goal was to educate the youth about the dangers of drug use.


Just Say No was a subsidiary campaign of the larger Say No to Drugs Campaign, which was Nancy Reagan’s brainchild and her defining mark as First Lady. She and her presidential husband made it their #1 priority to, as they would say, solve the problem of drug use in America.


Nancy & Ronald Reagan Announce the Just Say No Campaign

 

WAS IT SUCCESSFUL?

The Say No to Drugs Campaign led to a reduction in the number of illicit drug users in the years following the campaign. However, there were also increases in both incarcerations for drug-related offenses and deaths from drug-use. So, it is difficult to say whether the anti-drug advertising campaigns of the 1980s were successful or not.


Whether or not you would consider them successful depends on your beliefs and values: if you value a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and think every drug user deserves to rot behind concrete and steel, then you probably thought the Say No to Drugs Campaign was a huge success. If you think that treatment and rehabilitation work better than imprisonment when dealing with drug addicts, then you probably think the Campaign was a floundering failure. 


Regardless, one thing the campaign did extremely well was raise awareness. At the dawn of the campaign, only 2-6% of Americans considered drugs to be the #1 issue in America—by the dusk of the campaign, that number was 67%.

 

CRITICISMS of JUST SAY NO CAMPAIGN

Many critics of the Just Say No campaign dismiss the entire message as harmfully over-reductive. What was obvious with the crack epidemic back then remains obvious with the opioid crisis now: saying “no” is not a catch-all cure. These drugs are powerful enough to kill people everyday and tear entire families asunder, they need to be fended off with more than a mere monosyllable. 


The efforts to get Americans off of drugs were nonexistent behind the slogan of the Just Say No campaign. There was next-to-no investment in sustainable infrastructure and treatments for drug addiction, only investment in infrastructure meant to imprison and stabilize the American citizenry.


In addition to its being harmfully reductive and providing no real solutions, the Just Say No campaign—along with the War on Drugs at-large—was thought trivialize the struggles of drug addicts in America. If it was really as simple as Just Saying No, then drug addicts must be either dumb or supremely weak-willed—this was the message the government was sending to its citizens whether it knew it or not. And this negative view of individuals who do drugs has continued to percolate into our culture as time moved on. So many of the negative effects of the anti-drug marketing of the 1980s still reverberate in our time, reminding us that the hand-me-down drug policies of yesteryear no longer fit the needs of our people, if in fact they ever did.


Another criticism of the 1980s anti-drug messaging, and the War on Drugs in general, was that it caused disproportionately negative effects for minority communities. Some of these instances of racism were well-disguised at the time, but seem painfully obvious to any 21st-century reader: Reagan-era sentencing policies set vastly different minimum prison sentences for crack cocaine vs. powder cocaine, despite the two drugs being the same. Beyond higher prison sentences for the drugs found in minority communities, the government also spent more time policing and patrolling predominantly-minority neighborhoods, which led to disproportionately higher rates of incarceration for minorities during this time and the years that followed.


Many people believe that the racism apparent in the government’s policies and policing were all a part of an elaborate plan to destabilize minority communities by introducing drugs, offering no support, and then killing or arresting anyone they wanted. While these ideas have never been (and likely never will be) proven or disproven, they certainly raise questions regarding the government’s motive. After all, this whole “War on Drugs” thing seemed to do a better job at destabilizing minority communities than it did at stopping drugs. 



WHAT IS PAZ PACKS JUST SAY NO CAMPAIGN

Paz Packs is borrowing the “Just Say No” slogan for the purpose of reigniting the conversation about healthy drug use, while also raising money and awareness for the issues surrounding the War on Drugs. These issues include: drug policy reform, mass incarceration and prison reform, releasing non-violent drug offenders, and providing valuable resources for those struggling with drug use.


The original Just Say No campaign was offering no alternatives: say no or go to jail. We recognize now that drug use and addiction are not criminal offenses, but health issues. 


It is never as simple as saying no, and we hope to let people know there is nothing wrong with them if they can’t. These people do not need to be thrown into prison, but instead treated with the same love and tenderness that makes everything on earth grow. From the smallest cannabis seed to the largest man in the Guinness record books—we all need support and understanding.



HOW CAN I HELP?

If you want to help, you can check out our resources on how you can help! 

You can also check out the Drug Policy Alliance or Last Prisoner Project websites, as they have great resources.

Remember that for the entire month of February 2022, all Paz Packs profits go to these two organizations. Following the end of the month, all "Just Say No"-branded Paz Packs products will still be available. For all of these products, all of the time, 100% of all profits are donated to the DPA and LPP.

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