In my work trying to bring the issue of marijuana reform to the forefront of Republican policy-making, I have often heard “old guard” Republicans parrot Nancy Reagan’s infamous “Just Say No” to drugs mantra. For many in the party, the issue of drug use is perceived as a personal failing on the part of an individual. According to this line of logic, addicts are just lazy, morally contemptible people, who leech off the welfare state and contribute nothing to society. The fundamental elements of this line of thinking have not diminished in the Republican Party, but its delivery has changed to meet with current political realities.
These days it is not politically expedient to demonize those addicted to drugs. Many of the hardest hit areas are white, working-class communities in “middle America” rather than predominantly minority communities residing in inner cities. Although the party knows it cannot condemn this group’s addiction as a moral failing, current Republican leadership has not adapted its policy message to account for the shift in tone.
“Just Say No” still resonates with the party faithful because it remains a simple solution to a complex problem which requires no concrete policy change. Just as crack cocaine ravaged inner city minority communities in Nancy Reagan’s era, opioids now ravage suburban, white, working-class communities. Unfortunately, “Just Say No” was, and remains, a convenient way to offer a solution to the drug abuse problem without having to take any steps to address the systemic reasons for the epidemic.
Mr. Trump’s return to the simple “Just Say No” message is a calculated move. The message hearkens back to the days of Reagan, while once again failing to address the systemic issues fuelling the opioid epidemic. No doubt this message will be fondly received by the traditionalists of the party. Mr. Trump had an opportunity to “just say no” to this unsuccessful and ineffective policy and embrace new and effective means of combating opioid use. The members of the opioid commission whom Mr. Trump tasked with finding a solution to the epidemic ignored approximately eight thousand recommendations to consider marijuana as an alternative pain treatment. Despite increasingly clear scientific and medical research which demonstrates that marijuana is a safe, effective, and non-addictive pain-relief alternative to opioids, the federal government continues to ignore the medical and scientific community.
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Hunter White is the Communications Director of Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition