• History
  • politics

As President Trump Declares Opioid Emergency, Here’s What to Know About the History of ‘Just Say No’

4 minute read

As he declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency, President Trump on Thursday called for “really tough, really big, really great advertising” to “teach young people not to take drugs,” and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions echoed that sentiment, stating, “People should say no to drug use.”

But it was a different anti-drug slogan that quickly started trending on Twitter: “Just Say No.” And, while it may have proved its continuing appeal on Thursday, that slogan was also the product of a very specific moment in time.

First Lady Nancy Reagan is credited with popularizing the pithy turn of phrase in the early ’80s, while meeting with students in 1984 Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, Calif.

As she told Katie Couric in 2004: “I was in California and I was talking to, I think, fifth graders, and one little girl raised her hand and said, ‘Mrs. Reagan, what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?’ And I said, ‘Well, you just say no.’ And there it was born. I think people thought that we had an advertising agency over who dreamed that up — not true.”

As part of her work on the subject, she crisscrossed the country talking about prevention and visiting rehab centers, and hosted a 1985 conference on drug abuse. She also maintained that the U.S. still had more work to be done in terms of stricter law enforcement and education, as she told the United Nations General Assembly in 1988 while becoming the first First Lady to address the UNGA. The former Hollywood actress recruited some of the biggest names in entertainment to help record PSAs — Clint Eastwood, Michael Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers, to name a few — and by 1988, about 12,000 “Just Say No” Clubs had formed nationwide. President Reagan called her his “secret weapon” in the war on drugs.

In considering why that particular moment was one to tackle the scourge of drugs in the U.S., TIME in 1986 considered the cyclical nature of the matter. “It is hard to say precisely why drugs are this year’s public bane, just as it is hard to know why other threats that are ever present — from nuclear holocaust to world hunger to environmental disaster — seem to obsess the national consciousness in cycles,” the magazine noted. “Perhaps it is the sheer insidiousness of crack, the newly popular, highly potent form of cocaine that can in short order transform the casual pleasure seeker into an addict. Perhaps it is the perception that drugs have spread into the workplace and the neighborhood, that they have arrived like the wolf at the door, or at least next door. In any case, this is hardly the nation’s first drug crisis, nor will it be the last.”

But there was another factor in play.

To the Reagans and many other conservatives in the 1980s, the sharp increase in marijuana and heroin use in the U.S. was seen as proof that “the 1960s were a dark and undisciplined time that devastated our young people and spawned a drug culture,” wrote Hugh Sidey, who covered the presidency for TIME. He also quoted the First Lady saying, ”I don’t think throwing a lot of money into this problem is going to solve it. It’s going to be solved by people standing up and taking a position that this is wrong… morally wrong.”

That statement exemplified the administration’s view on the proper role of government in people’s lives. “The Reagans used the drug war to illustrate how government could champion morality without expanding its powers,” presidential historian Gil Troy argues in Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. “Emphasizing individual behavior, not government programs…funding for drug treatment and prevention dropped from $200 million to $126 million.”

Now, nearly 30 years later, there are still concerns about the balance between saying no and providing funding. Trump’s declaration of a public health emergency may have freed up some funds, but not as much as experts on opioid policy wanted. With the Public Health Emergency Fund reportedly down to $57,000 as of 2016, one expert told TIME that at least $60 billion over the next 10 years is needed to properly combat today’s epidemic.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com