By the end of the '70s, it appeared that marijuana decriminalization would become the law of the land. But then came Ronald and Nancy Reagan, and their "Just Say No" anti-drug doctrine. Largely thanks to them, 35 years later, very little has changed on the federal level.
Nancy Reagan died Mar. 6. To drug-policy reformers, she's always be known as "Just Say No" Nancy. She gave the speech below in September 1986…
'For the sake of our children, I implore each of you to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs… Our job is never easy, because drug criminals are ingenious. They work everyday to plot a new and better way to steal our children's lives, just as they've done by developing the news drug, crack. For every door that they close, we open a new door to death. They prosper on our unwillingness to act… It's up to us to change attitudes and just simply dry up their markets… To enjoy life to the fullest, and to make it count, say yes to your life, and when it comes to drugs and alcohol, just say no.'
A month after this speech, on Oct. 27, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which primarily created mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana and other drugs. Crack use was particularly singled out. A crack user would be issued a five-year mandatory for possession of five grams of cocaine, while a powder cocaine user would receive the same penalty for possessing 500 grams. It took 24 years to rewrite this law (now, instead of 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine possession penalties, it's 18:1).
During the Reagans' last years in the White House, they ratcheted up the drug war to include civil forfeiture, employee drug testing and mass incarceration, leading to the U.S. having the largest prison population in the world (the last figure was 2.2 million people behind bars).
While more then half the states now have adult-use or medical cannabis laws on the books, the federal government continues to refuse to budge in its position against marijuana decrim or legalization. It's easy to blame the Reagans for the modern drug, but their successors in the White House (George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now Barack Obama) must also share the blame for the government's intransigence. And if the Democrats lose the White House to a Republican in November, this could pave the way for a new era of Just Say No-style moralizing.
The death of Nancy Reagan reminds us of how vigilant we must be on this issue. We've come a long way since 1986, but not nearly far enough. Now that she's gone, it's time to re-double our efforts to implore Congress to make marijuana-law reform a major priority. The concept of Just Say No hopefully will go to the grave with the Reagans, long buried as the reprehensible policy of intolerant lawmakers who prefer alcohol to a good, green smoke.