Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles poster design, typical of the “Just Say No” era (Source)

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, we covered cannabis’ history in the US, from the Mayflower to Nixon’s declaration of war against “public enemy number one” – drugs. Now, in this final installation, we’ll look at how the War on Drugs – and cannabis policies – progressed throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Concerned Parents

A still from Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue (1990), an anti-drug TV special featuring popular animated characters. In the film, 14-year-old Michael steals his sister’s piggy bank to satiate his cannabis habit (Source)

In 1976, in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA, Martha and Ron Schuchard discovered that their thirteen-year-old daughter was smoking cannabis. After finding roaches and rolling papers in the garden after her birthday party[i], the concerned parents began their own grassroots movement. Together with Robert DuPont, who was head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the time, they wrote and published Parents, Peers, and Pot – a guide for parents on how to prevent their children from taking drugs. The movement slowly gathered momentum as more concerned parents joined the ranks, and other similar groups were formed – Families in Action and the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth, for example.[ii]

Across the country, predominantly white, suburban parents across the party lines were united in their fear. The term ‘amotivational syndrome’ was coined: a “scientific-sounding phrase”[iii] to describe the lethargy supposedly caused by long-term cannabis use. Moreover, parents were scared that cannabis would lead their children to try harder drugs. The ‘tough love’ approach was widely accepted as the best way to deal with teens-gone-wild, advocating harsh punishments and torturous rehab programs. While the movement didn’t have a significant impact on policy during the 70s, it would become politically amplified during the next decade.

Reagan’s Legacy


Ronald Reagan was elected as president in 1980, marking a turn towards conservative values after Jimmy Carter’s presidency. While cannabis use was actually in decline in the 80s (with cocaine and heroin use increasing, unfortunately), Reagan declared another War on Drugs in 1982, stating that “[w]e’re making no excuses for drugs, hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad and we’re going after them.”[iv] Sadly, after years of talk about decriminalization under Carter, cannabis was once again demonized.

Reagan’s administration enacted some particularly significant policies that would have a substantial and long-lasting impact on cannabis legislation. In 1982, he pushed Congress to amend the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878: an act that explicitly limited the federal government from using the military to enforce civilian or domestic law. By amending the act, Reagan essentially militarized the War on Drugs. Social programs were cut, and the funds were diverted to “military hardware” and “paramilitary training for SWAT teams and other police units.”[v] Drug offenders were no longer citizens in need of treatment, but dangerous enemies who needed to be neutralized. In order to counter the “exceedingly small number” of domestic growers, Reagan also ordered the DEA to spray forests in southern states with the deadly herbicide paraquat – a “direct contravention of federal environmental legislation.”[vi]

Then, in 1984, he passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which allowed assets seized in drug busts to be reinvested into the War on Drugs. Local law enforcement agencies could also now receive a cut of the profits from seized assets, resulting in a significant increase in civil forfeiture. While the act was aimed at organized crime and drug traffickers, innocent citizens – many of whom were only suspected of drug-related crimes, and were not charged or found guilty – lost thousands of dollars’ worth of property and assets.

Furthermore, Congress also enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 that enforced strict mandatory minimums for drug charges – including those for cannabis possession, cultivation, and transportation.  This act targeted mostly working class and African American communities: the minimum sentence for possession of 5 grams (0.17 ounces) of crack cocaine was 5 years without parole, whereas the same sentencing for powder cocaine would require possession of 500 grams (17 ounces)!

Dare to Say No

Nancy Reagan Just Say No
Nancy Reagan with school children at one of her “Just Say No” rallies (Source)

At the same time that President Reagan was enacting harsh policies that would destroy many communities, the burgeoning parents movement was bolstered by the First Lady’s social project. Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign was launched in 1980, but only took on the famous moniker “Just Say No” in 1982 when a school girl asked Nancy what she should do if offered drugs. This thoroughly banal and ignorant response to the very real problem of addiction did little to address drug abuse in the US, but “the refrain became the mantra of the anti-drug movement”[vii]; across the country, students formed “Just Say No” clubs at their schools and pledged to stay drug-free.

Similarly, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program (or D.A.R.E.) began in 1983, enlisting trained police officers to educate children about the dangers of drugs. Unfortunately, cannabis was purported to be a ‘gateway drug’ once again, and D.A.R.E. still maintains that marijuana is a dangerous, addictive substance that can apparently “trigger acute psychotic episodes.”

One of the most interesting aspects of these youth-targeted campaigns was how they employed popular culture to reach their target audience. From the infamous after-school specials and public service announcements to celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jackson speaking out against drug use, the anti-drug movements of the 1980s reshaped the national dialogue around addiction – focusing more intimately on children and the domestic sphere than drug abuse’s socioeconomic basis.

Puff, Puff, Pass…But Don’t Inhale

The impact of both Ronald and Nancy’s campaigns would set back cannabis research and reform for decades. The public hysteria around drug abuse positioned cannabis as equal to hard drugs, and “transform[ed] marijuana into a dangerous threat to the future of America’s children and the nation itself.”[viii] Ironically, the Reagans’ own daughter developed a cocaine addiction (but did not serve a mandatory minimum sentence for her habit).

Unfortunately, when George H.W. Bush became president in 1989 – after serving as Director of the CIA and Reagan’s Vice President – he continued the militarized War on Drugs both at home and abroad.

In 1992, Bill Clinton ran for office on a progressive campaign advocating for treatment instead of incarceration, and admitted to trying cannabis but ‘not inhaling’ as a college student. However, in an effort to curb gang violence and drug-related crime, Clinton simply furthered the problematic policies of his Republican predecessors by passing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 – once again targeting primarily African American, urban communities. This act instituted more mandatory minimums and increased prison sentences, expanded the use of the death penalty, and led to mass incarceration. Moreover, much like Nancy Reagan, First Lady Hillary Clinton promoted this legislation, lobbying Congress to pass the bill.

Lessons Learned?

Looking back at the history of cannabis’ criminalization in the US, it’s tragic to see how the delirious fear surrounding marijuana was driven and maintained by bigotry. From Anslinger’s Gore Files to the on-going War on Drugs, it is most often marginalized groups who are affected by these policies: people of color, immigrants, anti-war and civil rights activists, and the working class.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, and things are changing. For as long as cannabis prohibition has existed, there have been dissenting voices – doctors, activists, patients, journalists, artists, veterans, and citizens who continuously questioned and critiqued the paranoia and prejudice they saw around them. With the formation of groups like NORML and the Drug Policy Alliance, we’ve seen the tide of cannabis reform slowly take root and grow in the United States. Last year, for example, a national poll revealed that 58% of US citizens support legalizing cannabis – a record high for the country. While more research needs to be done to determine cannabis’ long-term effects (both positive and negative), we are finally facing the exciting possibility of wide-scale legalization in our lifetime.


why is weed illegal part 3

[i] Martin Booth, Cannabis: A History (New York: Picador, 2003), 306.

[ii] Ibid, 306.

[iii] Ibid, 306.

[iv] Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian, A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition (New York: The New Press, 2014), 52.

[v] Martin A. Lee, Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational, and Scientific (New York: Scribner, 2012), 160.

[vi] Booth, 308.

[vii] Joe Mozingo, Sonali Kohli and Zahira Torres, “’Just Say No’ anti-drug campaign helped define Nancy Reagan’s legacy,” The LA Times, March 7, 2016. http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-nancy-reagan-drugs-20160307-story.html

[viii] Emily Dufton, “Parents, Peers, and Pot: The Rise of the Drug Culture and the Birth of the Parent Movement, 1976 – 1980,” Trans-Scripts: An Interdisciplinary Online Journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences at UC Irvine Vol. 3: Thinking Activism (Spring 2013), 232.

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