I was saddened when I heard that Nancy Reagan died, not that it was totally unexpected, since she was in her 90’s. But, she had special place in my heart because I had a connection to her that was a bit unexpected.
You see, I was just past my teens years when President Ronald Reagan was elected. I was not particularly politically engaged or aware. But, as a black kid, who spent a lot of time with black folks, I heard often that President Reagan, rather than the Soviet Union, was the “evil empire.” So, by extension, Mrs. Reagan was too. But, my view changed when I heard her tell an elementary school girl in Oakland, CA to “just say no” when someone offered her drugs. In a sense, I “lit up” because Mrs. Reagan’s advice rang true to me. It was not naïve or simplistic, as some of her critics claimed.
First, given my background and demographics as a kid, I was “ripe for the picking” for drug use. From the time I was in the 2nd grade, my 3 siblings and I were raised by a single mother, at times in a tough neighborhood. So, my mother was often at work, which left me plenty of unsupervised time to get in trouble. Indeed, research suggests that kids in father absent homes are more likely to use drugs. Second, I suffered a significant trauma when I was an 8-year-old as I watched the lifeless body of my 10-year-old kid brother be pulled from a public swimming pool. Unfortunately, given my family’s dynamics, I received little help to grieve and make sense of this tragedy. Third, since we moved often, I attended 4 different schools by the time I was in 5th grade. So, I was a lonely kid with no real friends, and, as a result, longed to just fit in.
In any case, my moment of testing came when I was a 15-year-old junior in high school and we moved from Ohio to Florida. So, I was starting over at a new school and really wanted to make some friends. Well, I was walking home and a few guys from the school stopped and offered me a ride. I quickly said yes and was sandwiched between two guys in the back seat of the car. And, then it happened. The guy to my right pulled out some marijuana and started rolling a joint. He lit it, took a long drag and then handed it to me. And, I just said, “No.”
So, when I heard Mrs. Reagan’s advice, it rang true to me because it was true for me. In fact, I continued to say “no” throughout high school, college and in my adult life. That said, it is worth noting that the use and abuse of illegal drugs by the young significantly declined during the Reagan presidency. Indeed, it is often the simplest solutions that confound the wisest of “experts.”Now, I am not trying to make the case that this entire decline was due to Mrs. Reagan’s campaign because it is hard to know. But, what we do know is that anyone who has become a drug addict started by not saying “no.” And, anyone who ever kicked a drug habit did so by consistently saying “no.” And, it is clear that the media messages and tone set by our political and cultural elites matters a lot, especially to children.
But, my how things have changed…
For example, consider Miley Cyrus’s recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. To celebrate the occasion, Fallon and the show’s band joined Cyrus in singing a playful cappella version of her song “We Can’t Stop,” which makes light of cocaine and ecstasy use. Certainly, the song’s title is ironically appropriate given the countless addicts who are hooked on these drugs and, unfortunately, can’t stop.
And, of course, there are the many state legislative efforts to legalize recreational marijuana, despite the growing evidence that this is problematic for communities and, especially, for children. For example, the data on Colorado, which led the way in legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012, is now available. Consider what has happened across several key areas:
· Impaired Driving: While overall traffic fatalities decreased by 14.8 percent (from 2007 to 2012), fatalities involving operators testing positive for marijuana increased by a 100 percent.
· Youth Marijuana Use: In 2012, around 10 percent of youth, ages 12 to 17, were considered current marijuana users, compared to 7.55 percent nationally. Colorado, which ranks 4th in the nation, was 39 percent higher than the national average. Drug-related suspensions/expulsions in schools increased 32 percent.
· Crime: Overall, crime in Denver increased 6.7 percent from the first six months of 2013 to the first six months of 2014.
· Homelessness: Denver homeless shelters attribute marijuana legalization to the increase of homeless adults and youth.
Indeed, these finding are extremely troubling. No doubt, Colorado is a cultural “canary in the mine” that is foreshadowing what we should expect to see in other states that are quickly following its lead.
So, unfortunately, more and more folks in positions of cultural power and leadership are choosing to celebrate and accommodate drug use. Alas, they have chosen to “Just Say No” to the wrong thing.