Mrs. Reagan first became aware of the drug problem in America when she learned that the children of many of her friends were using drugs – some had even committed suicide as a result. It had a big effect on her. In a 1980 campaign trip she had visited Daytop Village, a substance abuse treatment center in New York. She was impressed by the work that was being done there to help young people recover from drug dependency. She never forgot the experience, and as first lady she began to actively campaign against drug and alcohol abuse.
In the early months as first lady, she visited several drug treatment centers, met with the Board of Directors for the National Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth, and attended a meeting of the American Council on Marijuana. By mid-1982 she had addressed the National Legislative Session of the PTA regarding the drug abuse problem, attended conferences in several states, and on October 11, 1982, she attended the first National Conference of the National Federation for Drug-Free Youth.
A name for Mrs. Reagan’s cause was chosen after she met with schoolchildren in Oakland. “A little girl raised her hand,” Mrs. Reagan recalled, “and said, ’Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?’ And I said, ’Well, you just say no.’ And there it was born.” The phrase caught on, and was eventually adopted as the name for clubs and school anti-drug programs. By 1988 more than 12,000 “Just Say No” clubs had been formed across the country and around the world.
Mrs. Reagan traveled more than 250,000 miles throughout the United States and around the world. She traveled to sixty-five cities in thirty-three states, the Vatican and eight other foreign countries. In 1984 alone, she made 110 appearances and fourteen anti-drug speeches. She visited drug abuse prevention programs and rehabilitation centers, appeared on radio and television in public service announcements and on talk shows to get her message across. She appeared as herself in an episode of the popular sitcom Diff’rent Strokes.
In April of 1985, Mrs. Reagan invited the wives of world leaders to attend a First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse at the White House and was joined by eighteen first ladies. In October of that same year, during the United Nations’ 40th anniversary, thirty first ladies joined her in New York for the second First Ladies Conference.
On October 27, 1986, President Reagan signed the “National Crusade for a Drug Free America” anti-drug abuse bill into law, and Mrs. Reagan considered it a personal victory. And on October 25, 1988, Mrs. Reagan addressed the United Nations General Assembly, urging the United States to do more to solve the drug problem through education and law enforcement directed at drug users. She said that developing nations must still work with the United States to suppress drug production and smuggling, but the United States could do more to curb the demand created by its own citizens.
One of Mrs. Reagan’s most treasured memories of her years as first lady is of her visit with His Holiness Pope John Paul II on September 16, 1987. She met the Pope with her husband on other occasions, but this time, when they visited Immaculate Conception School in Los Angeles, she met with him alone and they discussed her anti-drug crusade.
Mrs. Reagan’s efforts to save children from the dangers of drug abuse were rewarded. Of all of her accomplishments as first lady, the reduction in drug abuse by young people is the one of which she is most proud. Cocaine use by high school seniors dropped by one-third, from 6.2 percent in 1986 to 4.3 percent in 1987, the lowest level in a decade. More than 10 percent of the members of the class of 1978 said they used marijuana daily, but by 1987 the figure was only about 3 percent among high school seniors.
Upon leaving the White House, Mrs. Reagan established the Nancy Reagan Foundation to continue her campaign against drug abuse. The Nancy Reagan Foundation merged with the BEST Foundation for a Drug-Free Tomorrow in 1994, which developed the Nancy Reagan Afterschool Program. Many “Just Say No” Clubs are still active around the country.