She sat quietly on a couch, unassuming, unpretentious, listening, then explaining what had brought her to Washington DC. Too many children at risk, so many dying needlessly, prior focus lost, no one to blame, no shame in the disease, just terrible human cost. She resolved to offer – one last time – hope.
Even recent history can be valuable. The date was March 9, 1995. The preceding year was a barnburner for drug overdoses and crimes committed on drugs.
Overdoses jumped 17 percent in 1994.
Half of all violent crimes – not just drug offenses – were committed by those on drugs, Birmingham to San Diego, Cleveland, and Denver to Washington DC. Drug addiction was up prevention, treatment, caring down. See, e.g., Consequences of youth substance abuse.
Addiction, initiation, overdose deaths, purity levels, general indifference to everything from cocaine and heroin to violent crime tied to drugs generated shrugs – in the early 1980s.
Those using drugs – and where it led them – was no concern to most Americans, “not my problem.”
On the numbers, in 1985, just two percent of the country named drugs the number one problem.
By 1989, like a rogue wave, 64 percent ranked drug abuse at “number one.” The sea change was driven by two events. In the late 1980s, early 1990s, illicit drug availability and purities rose markedly. So did awareness – by kids, parents, teachers, civic leaders, doctors, police, politicians in both parties.
Like pine boxes coming home from the Vietnam war, drug overdoses, emergency room admissions, data showing crimes committed on drugs said, “whoa!” More to the point, prevention – education about real, provable drug-related dangers, addiction, mental health, domestic violence, crime – took off.
In the non-profit world, prevention and education came into their own, with a realization that supply and demand reinforce each other. Rising narcotics availability pushed up demand. Breaking that cycle during late Reagan, early Bush 41 years was a priority. But priorities slip. The first Gulf War, change of presidents, congressional leadership took a toll. Interest in drug prevention and treatment fell.
The effect, as noted above, was shocking. By the mid-1990s, we were again gripped by a crisis, supply, and demand, culpability everywhere. Then something happened: Republicans and Democrats stopped pretending it was not happening, stopped pointing fingers, and started working on solutions.
That process began with a series of high-profile congressional hearings, initiated in March 1995. The hearings led to a closer relationship between the Republican-led Congress, h Newt Gingrich as Speaker, and Democratic-led White House, under Bill Clinton. Leaders stopped blaming, worked on credit.
Using legislation pioneered by Senators Hatch and Biden in the late 1980s, building on a legacy left by Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, Clinton’s cabinet-rank Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), led by General Barry McCaffery, moved into high gear. Republicans supported his efforts.
In short, beginning with a remarkable hearing – March 9, 1995 – including all past Drug Czars, DEA heads, SAMHSA, non-profits, and one stunning luminary, the national tide turned. Cooperation broke the rogue wave, reversed the tide. Over the next half dozen years, positive data proved drug availability could be driven down, prevention and treatment up, changes of attitude altering behavior, saving lives.
Then came 1999, and a new spike – that has lasted. Somehow, after 9-11, leaders alternately deprioritized or minimized drug abuse, mocked prevention, glorified use, forgot addiction risks – and where they lead – or went to handwringing, finger-pointing, legalization. We just lost our way.
The irony is – and it flashes brightly today – we have already broken this code. In the early 1980s, awareness was low, purities high, addiction not understood. Reagan’s message was plain – we can reverse this. And we did. By the late 1980s, awareness was up, attitudes changing behavior. Then we lost the con, only to regain it mid-1990s, which produced positive shifts up to 2000. Then we lost it again.
So, what works?
Three things: First, public awareness, education, national focus. Second, securing borders, supporting police, and treatment tied to the rule of law. Third, dropping blame, stopping political games, working on solutions. Gingrich worked with Clinton and McCaffery. It can be done.
The first two are important, third urgent. We are losing a generation faster than we know.
With heroin, meth, fentanyl, countless synthetics, including synthetic THC or marijuana, resurgent cocaine, coming spike in Afghan and Colombian heroin, leadership is vital. We need to recall who and what came before.
She sat quietly, with dignity, radiating compassion, explaining the “why” behind her convictions, the reason she was so focused on this issue, children she had met, teens she had cried with, letters received, impact made – and that, in the end, was why she was back in DC – after half a decade.
My job was to manage the hearing, assure logistics were in place, microphones up, nametags, each witness comfortable with what was to follow. We planned carefully. That day was a kickoff, the beginning of heartfelt, make-it-happen actions, which would stretch forward for years until we again forgot.
That day was the start of genuine, no games, two-party cooperation on something all understood to be more than an “issue.” It was the nation’s future, millions of young lives.
The room filled, mics went hot, lights came up, cameras rolled, and America paused to listen.
As she had in the 1980s, she leaned forward again, a quiet voice speaking truth to those now in power, offering hope, a prayer that they might lead – which they did. That day, she started a revolution, daring to do again what she had in the 1980s, put herself at risk – believing, which she did fervently, that stopping drug addiction, overdoses, and trafficking was possible – if we laid down swords for souls. The figure who galvanized that room, Democrats and Republicans, was Nancy Reagan. We can still learn from her personal conviction. See, e.g., Nancy Reagan testifies before House Subcmte on Anti-Drug Policy; Notable & Quotable: Nancy Reagan; NATIONAL DRUG POLICY: A REVIEW OF THE STATUS OF THE DRUG WAR.