Ronald Reagan To Go Down In History As The Champion of the War On Illicit Drugs

By Alberto Carosa

“I also continue to follow with great appreciation your commitment to the promotion of moral values in American society, particularly with regard to respect for life and the family”: John Paul II was quoted as saying these words, among other things, when he received President George W. Bush in the VaticanĀ  June 4th, 2004. “Our thoughts also turn today to the 20 years in which the Holy See and the United States have enjoyed formal diplomatic relations”, he also said, “established in 1984 under President Reagan”.

Nobody could envisage at that moment that Ronald Regan would pass away the following day. Yet, he is poised to go down in history as the leader who paved the way for the above promotion by being the first president who openly supported the culture of life, after almost a decade of living under the Roe v. Wade decision. Reagan was the only sitting president to write a book while in office and, fittingly, Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation, was a celebration of the pro-life perspective and an encouragement for the pro-life community to never give up. Congressman Henry Hyde, himself a pro-life champion, says Reagan “gave the right to life position stature and legitimacy”, while nationally syndicated columnist Fred Barnes calls Reagan the “father of the pro-life movement”.

But there is another much less known, albeit no less important, aspect of Reagan’s siding with the culture of life: his war on illicit drugs. He was the first western politicians to make the fight on drug addiction a basic points of his agenda, already in his 1970 campaign, when this public commitment contributed to the overwhelming consensus with which he commenced his political career as governor of California. He was one of the few leaders who grasped the ideological roots underpinning the spreading of drug addiction: the 1968 anti-prohibitionist philosophy with its far-reaching social and cultural implications, rather than being merely and/or primarily health-related. If until 1962 only less than 1% of the entire US population had smoked pot, albeit occasionally, in 1979 and therefore in the peak of the hippy movement, drug addiction involved some 70% of US young adult aged 18-25. Set to fend off the “counter-culture” based on the “free drug America” principle, he reacted by forcefully launching a “drug free America” initiative through an effective synergy between public institutions and the vast sector of civil society, which was in the forefront of the anti-drug fight against the powerful lobby of drug liberalisers.

A typical case in point was the spontaneous establishment of thousand parents associations and family-related NGOs around the country precisely in the late Seventies, to which President Reagan gave his institutional blessings, co-opting them in what he launched as the “War on Drug”. Parents mobilisation had started on earnest in early 1977, when Sue Rusche in Atlanta (Georgia) established the organization “Families
in Action” (FIA), because of their concern about the influence of the drug culture on the young people. FIA is credited with the first parental assault on the community drug culture. The snowball effect was compelling: other anti-drug personalities of the calibre of Betty Sembler (founder and president of Drug Free America Foundation and wife to the present US Ambassador to Italy, Melvin Sembler), Calvina Fay (a pioneering expert on workplace drug abuse prevention programs presently executive director of Drug Free America Foundation) and Stephanie Haynes (president of Drug Prevention Network of the Americas), among countless others, followed suit and anti-drug parent associations mushroomed countrywide. In May 1980 a national parent organization, the National Federation of Parents for Drug Free Youth was established in Silver Springs, Maryland.

This involvement of families for a sound co-operation and interaction between local communities and federal government was legally and initially entrenched in the 1982 Federal Strategy for Prevention of Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking. And this was only the beginning. In 1984 an unprecedented National Family Partnership was launched under the supervision of the embattled first lady Nancy Reagan with the slogan “Just say no”. For this purpose she invited in Washington hundreds of representatives of over 2000 parent groups, who travelled at their own expense, and board members of the above National Federation of Parents for a discussion which was to formally launch the war on drugs. More in detail, this plan was aimed at beefing up protection for the youth not to be lured into drug addiction by anti-prohibitionist propaganda, through educational programmes and ad-hoc seminars in schools and workplaces nationwide in close co-operation with the Movement of Anti-Drug Parents, health and social services, and the other competent federal agencies.

For its part, the government did not directly fund any portion of the parent movement , but facilitated the movement’s goals and activity in a variety of ways, ranging from public endorsement by the President and the First Lady to making parent-oriented prevention material available for distribution to the public. The role of the state governments varied from one state to another, but generally there was mutual support and collaboration. In April ’85 Nancy Reagan expanded her drug awareness campaign to an international level by inviting first ladies from around the world to attend a two day briefing on the subject of youth drug abuse. The White House commitment culminated with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, an exemplary milestone on the legislative front of the anti-dope fight, which was signed into law by President Reagan in 1986.

This strategy produced almost immediate results, for the first time reversing the trend: the war on drug managed to slash US illicit drug consumers by a stable 70%, both among teens (12-17) and youth, minimizing related social costs in terms of crime and death. Moreover, the free drug lobby ran into serious difficulties and had to reshape its strategy, by switching from an aggressive to a defensive approach. In other words, drug liberalisers had to start speaking of a “reformist” and no longer “revolutionary” effort to legalise drugs, as aptly pointed out by Sue Rusche in her “Guide to the Drug Legalisation Movement and how you can stop it” (Published by the “National Families in Action”, Atlanta, October 1997), chapter sixth, “The second effort to legalise drugs”.

In particular, this second effort was based on two main pillars:

– Harm reduction philosophy inspired by the 1993 Frankfurt Resolution;


– injection of fresh funds by billionaire George Soros, who revived the US drug legalisation movement with millions of dollars.

George Soros seemed to have learnt Reagan’s lesson when he made available $ 6 million “to promote alternatives to the war on drug”, which could not but have been premised, in his own words, on an all-out “war on the war on drugs”.

Source: Drug Free America FoundationAugust 2004

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