Changing the Stigma Around Drug Addiction: Say No to Just Say No

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Growing up, I often heard the old Reagan era adage Just Say No to drugs. Just say no. It seems to be an easy adage to adhere to, but the fact is, Just Say No is dangerous to people who suffer from addiction.

If you’ve been paying attention to me and my articles this semester, you’ll know that I’ve fallen in love with “The West Wing.” It was surprising to me to watch the show and see how frank and honest its portrayal of recovery was. The show’s writer, Aaron Sorkin, suffered from addiction as did a member of the ensemble cast, John Spencer, who played Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. Leo is a recovering alcoholic and addict. A few episodes in seasons one and two hint at his addiction as well as give insight into people’s reactions to his recovery as well as his past.

In the season three Christmas episode, “Bartlet for America,” Leo’s relapse during a pivotal moment of the Bartlet election campaign is shown in detail in what is an incredibly moving episode. The audience also gets a peek into Leo’s mind and the thought process behind his alcoholism and addiction. While speaking to his lawyer, Leo recounts:

I don’t understand people who have one drink. I don’t understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don’t understand people who say they’ve had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this? How could you not want to feel like this longer? My brain works differently.

Those words are a victory for the representation of addiction, a representation I’ve not seen again on television. The episode won Spencer an Emmy award in 2002.

While I was listening to “The West Wing Weekly” podcast on Spotify, I came across the episode companion for “Bartlet for America.” CNN reporter David Daniel interviewed Spencer before the Emmy awards and talked about Leo’s addiction. While doing so, Spencer had some powerful words about Just Say No and drug addiction as a disease. These words have been rattling around in my head since I heard them. They’re powerful and deserve to be heard. They also encompass my own thoughts about drug addiction and the idea surrounding Just Say No.

What Spencer said was this:

You want to push a button of anger in me? Coming from a place of addiction, [Just Say No] is such a pathetic response. It’s evil. I don’t think [Nancy Reagan] sat around wanting to be evil, but that did so much harm. You have addicts out there going, “Why can’t I say no? What’s wrong with me? I should be that strong.” It’s a lack of intelligence and a lack of understanding. It doesn’t help anybody. Once we can realize it’s a disease, and it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, then you can attack it in an intelligent way. To make it a moral choice is just stupid.

While the Just Say No campaign has been rebranded into D.A.R.E, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, the prevalence of Just Say No has permeated our culture and left a damaging mark on the so-called War on Drugs campaign. Just Say No created a stigma surrounding those who suffered from the disease. It grouped everyone from alcoholics to meth users under one category of addiction and determined that those who suffered were bad people in our society. Drug users and addicts of all stripes were lumped together as “a dangerous and roughly defined ‘other,’ and presented them as the consequence of collective personal failure in affected communities rather than a public health crisis for millions of Americans,” according to The Guardian.

When Just Say No was implemented, and the War on Drugs began in earnest, drug-related incarcerations skyrocketed. According to, in an article highlighting Reagan’s campaign, “the number of people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses increased from 50,000 in 1980 to more than 400,000 by 1997.” Those numbers continue to grow. In a figure taken from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, just last month, 73,476 people were incarcerated for drug-related crimes. Seventy-three thousand people in a span of a month.

The thing about addiction is it doesn’t discriminate between perceived “good” guys and “bad” guys. It is a disease, and while some can overcome that disease, some cannot and struggle with the disease their entire lives. Like trying to tell a depressed person to “just get better” or “just be happy” doesn’t work, Just Say No doesn’t work as well.

“The face of addiction is not who you think it is. It can be anybody,” Arkansas Tech University alumna Bonnie Stribling told me.

I was incredibly lucky to talk to Stribling on the subject and talk to her about her story. Stribling, a graduate of ATU, is now working with the Arkansas Department of Health as a Peer Recovery Support Specialist. She works with incarcerated juveniles all over Arkansas between the ages of 13 to 21. What used to be called “kid prison” is now a treatment program that is tasked with recovery and individualized approaches to recovery that involves mental health.

She believes that in order to break the stigma that Just Say No created, colleges need to have places established that are safe and offer frank discussions about addiction, how to prevent it and how to face and conquer challenges that college presents to young people. Of course, this also stems to the community at large. In order to break the stigma, frank and open discussions are needed across the board.

Stribling’s own addiction began at college. She said she came from a background that made her more susceptible to addiction “without her choice” and said that, “my brain chemistry made up for the already established deficiencies. So, I became so addicted to it because I was already susceptible to it. I became so dependent on it, I needed that instant gratification…that throughout my addiction, I was always searching for something to make me feel whole and complete and satisfied.

“The reason it’s not a choice is because it’s easy to look at an addict’s life and say ‘well, why don’t you just quit?’ It’s like, ‘I don’t want to grow up and put my son’s life at risk and I’m going to be in an abusive relationship and I’m going to sell everything and steal everything.’ That’s not something someone with a college degree is going to wake up and say that’s what I want to do,” she said.

Stribling also brought up a chapter in the Alcoholics Anonymous book, “The Big Book,” called “The Doctor’s Opinion.” The book, written in 1939 by Bill W. says that doctors, even in the ‘40s, before Reagan and the Just Say No era, were discovering that people were continuing to use against all odds and they say that it’s a “spiritual malady” and in order to move past it, the person suffering needs to make a big psychological change.

Stribling echoed Spencer’s opinion and continued, “When I say it’s a choice, now I’m attaching a morality statement to it. Like, oh it’s a choice and you continue to use, so you’re a bad person. No, I’m not a bad person. I’m a sick person. I’m just trying to get well.”

When I asked her about Just Say No, she said, “When I hear Just Say No, I just laugh, because it’s not that easy. I wish it were. I wish there was a different way to put Just Say No. It’s more like just accept who you are and adjust because if I just say no, then it could become an obsession.”

The stigma surrounding drug addiction is something that needs to change. It’s as simple as that. It hasn’t changed in almost thirty years and it’s time to do something about that. America’s War on Drugs, a war we’re still fighting, is only getting worse because citizens, as a collective, don’t understand or accept the root cause of drug and alcohol addiction because of damaging adages like Just Say No and Hugs Not Drugs. We are in the middle of a dangerous Opioid epidemic partially for this very reason. At the risk of sounding like a rhyme-y crusader, I’m going to say this, we need to say no to Just Say No and reeducate the population to get ahead of this epidemic.