The crack baby epidemic would have been much worse off than it was.
When the Reagans moved into the White House on Jan. 20, 1981, drug use, particularly among teenagers, was hovering near the highest rates ever measured. Of that year’s graduating class, 65 percent had used drugs in their lifetimes and a remarkable 37 percent were regular drug users.
After the upheaval of the 1970s, Americans had chosen in Reagan a strong, optimistic leader to guide them to a more hopeful future. But there could be little real hope while one of the ‘70s more damaging legacies—astronomic drug use—was consuming the rising generation.
Fortunately for that generation of young people, Ronald and Nancy Reagan were stronger than the threat.
Eight years later, when the Reagans left Washington, only 19.7 percent of 1989’s graduating class were regular drug users, a 47-percent reduction. And the trend that began under their leadership persisted until it reached an all-time low of 14.4 percent in 1992, 61 percent lower than 1981.
While it is too simplistic to credit Nancy Reagan alone with this downturn, it is impossible to ignore her leadership and the massive shift she led against the drug culture. Her off-the-cuff response to a young Oakland girl who asked her what to do if confronted with drugs became a clarion call: “Just say no.”
This clear, unequivocal stand against drugs galvanized the nation by placing a moral stake in the ground: illicit drug use is wrong, harmful, and not compatible with a free society. It provided an example parents, teachers, community leaders, and especially young people could follow when confronting drugs.
She succeeded in changing the culture. By the spring of 1989, illegal drugs were Americans’ number one concern. Nancy Reagan’s call “to be unyielding and inflexible in your opposition to drugs” was even taken up by Hollywood. The dangers of drugs became a common theme on television programs, particularly those with family audiences, spurring discussions between parent and child.