“Just Say No” Just Didn’t Work

by Ned Wicker
(Wisconsin)

Hope works!

Hope works!

Many efforts to prevent drug abuse, to curb the growth of drug addiction, or to engage teenagers in honest conversation about using drugs have pretty much gone nowhere. In our technically-advanced world, communication is instantaneous. In our ever increasing world of medical breakthroughs, so much has been done to eradicate disease and advance public health initiatives.

Yet, drug abuse and addiction remain a enormous public health problem world-wide. Our modern society does everything to treat body and mind, but does little to nothing to address spiritual issues, which many believe are in the core driver causing addiction.

Often, society has marginalized the religious community –any faith tradition – and as a result the core issue behind drug use may never be discussed. We pour money and resources into community education, but education alone has failed and will continue to fail and a look back over 40 years of trying illustrates this point. We’re no better off and in many cases, and continue to fight a win-less battle.

Just Say No!

Back in the 1980’s, First Lady Nancy Reagan spearheaded the “Just Say No” advertising campaign to curb drug use by teenagers in the United States. I remember the TV ads, with little scenarios about kids saying no when offered marijuana or something else and the point was simple enough, just saying “no” was all it took to avoid of life of misery and calamity.

What the ads didn’t tell you was that the misery and calamity caused by drug addiction began because teenagers make bad decisions, mainly because “just say no” is overruled by peer pressure, adolescent reasoning and the powerful misconception that they are invincible.

The national Institutes of Health was busy with a substance abuse prevention program and the “Just Say No” came out of that effort. Professor Richard Evans of the University of Houston was the originator. He had been working on teaching kids how to resist peer pressure. As the program developed, Mrs. Reagan, who got involved after her husband, Ronald Reagan, was elected president in 1980, would coin the “Just Say No” phrase while speaking to school children.

There is evidence to suggest that “Just Say No” had some positive impact, as University of Michigan studies showed that use of illegal drugs had decreased in the 1980’s, but one would be hard-pressed to assert that “Just Say No” had any lasting impact, as drug use, especially heroin use, has been on the rose in recent years and in many communities, it is considered an epidemic.


Still it's harsh to criticize “Just Say No” because it was an honest attempt to address a serious social issue. But according to an article by Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz in Scientific American on December 19, 2013, “Just Say No” just didn’t work, because it was an education program and programs promoting social interaction, according to the article, were more effective.

This makes sense because all you have to do is look at cigarette smoking to see that education doesn’t work. Despite the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packages, warnings that have been there for decades, people still die of lung cancer and emphysema. They sue the tobacco companies and the lawyers get the money.

Drug Abuse Resistance Education

Then came the D.A.R.E. program that came about in 1983, a good idea to be sure, but a likewise poor performing strategy, owing to the same youthful frailty. This was the creation of the Los Angeles Police Department, whose uniformed officers went to schools to talk to the kids about drugs and addiction. D.A.R.E. stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.

Sadly, D.A.R.E. also missed the mark, as 20 controlled studies by statisticians Wei Pabn and Pim Cuijpers showed that those who went to D.A.R.E. were just as likely to use as those who were not in the program. Cuijpers asserted that the most effective programs were the ones that had the most interaction between instructors and students. These programs teach kids social skills. The interaction combats peer pressure and kids can feel comfortable about refusing to get involved and not feel uncomfortable about saying no. This is a process that takes place over time.

Drug abuse is often a spiritual struggle

Another factor in why education programs do not work is the fact that the lure of drugs, peer pressure and other social factors that lead to bad decisions and calamity are all too often the result of a kind of spiritual struggle.

The real question is “Why are kids attracted to drugs to begin with?” They want to be accepted, or they want to be a part of the crowd, or they may just want to feel better, but whatever the case, there is a void in their lives that has to be filled. “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E. offered great information on the consequences, the legal issues and offered a way to make kids street smart and savvy, but the burning question is “What hurts?”

We can go into schools and tell them not to do this and that, but we can’t go into schools and talk about matters of the spirit. Religion aside, human beings are body, mind, spirit and anything that endeavors to point a young person in the right direction must address all three components of human life. Our secular, politically correct society will fight to the death to prevent a spiritual intervention, which to me is profoundly sad.

Learning from the past

There will likely be more programs, more efforts, more dramatic events. Hopefully, future initiatives will understand the true issues behind addiction, and help kids learn how to address the spiritual pain they're experiencing. Our society should learn lessons from the failures of “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E, and address the human condition and the true underlying causes of addiction.

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and Finally Remember:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."
- Matthew 7:7-8


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