President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the U.S. Capitol in June 2017. (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images)

Sessions: Drug addiction starts with marijuana. Trump: Just say no

Speaking at separate events Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Donald Trump delivered remarks on drug policy that matched messaging straight out of the 1980s.

“We’ve got to re-establish first a view that you should say ‘no’ – people should say ‘no’ to drug abuse,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at the Heritage Foundation, echoing former first lady Nancy Reagan’s famous line.

Sessions said he thinks the country has become “lackadaisical” about drug use. In the past he has railed against permissive attitudes toward marijuana use, praised mandatory minimum sentences for drug criminals and spoken fondly of “20 years almost of hostility to drugs that began really when Reagan started ‘Just Say No.'”

At Heritage, Sessions also spoke approvingly of the “gateway theory” of drug abuse, popular among 80s-era anti-drug crusaders, which states that marijuana use becomes a “gateway” to harder drugs.

“When you talk to police chiefs, consistently they say much of the addiction starts with marijuana,” Sessions said. “It’s not a harmless drug.”

Trump echoed some of these thoughts later at the White House. He promised that “if we can teach young people, and people generally, not to start (taking drugs), it’s really, really easy not to take them.” He added that “there is nothing desirable about drugs. They’re bad.”

But the research on drug policy has come a long way since the Reagan days.

As a slogan, “just say no” informed national anti-drug programs such as DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which attempted to educate children on the dangers of drug use. The phrase was even turned into a board game.

But the problem with simply telling kids (or adults) to say “no” to drugs is that research shows it doesn’t work. Study after study has demonstrated that programs such as DARE not only didn’t reduce drug use, but in some cases may have actually inspired certain kids to experiment with illicit substances.

The gateway theory is also far from universally accepted. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says “further research is needed to explore this question,” noting that the overwhelming majority of people who try marijuana do not go on to use other drugs.

Other researchers point out that most people try alcohol or tobacco well before they try marijuana or any other drug, which would make the true “gateway drugs” 100 percent legal. Other studies have pointed to socioeconomic conditions and even drug enforcement policies as better predictors of hard drug use than marijuana.

Most Americans have also come to understand the “drugs are bad” mantra as overly simplistic. Alcohol, after all, is a drug, one that 70 percent of Americans say “yes” to in any given year. Marijuana is another drug that nearly two-thirds of Americans say should be legalized – a percentage that has risen even as Sessions has made his skepticism of legalization very public.

Ironically, marijuana may even have a role to play in mitigating the opiate epidemic, as numerous studies have shown that medical and recreational marijuana laws are associated with decreases in opiate dependency and overdose.

While the attorney general says the public has become “lackadaisical” about drugs, in reality the public’s thinking on the issue has become more nuanced. But that nuance has, so far, been missing in the Trump administration’s approach to the current drug epidemic.