As a co-president of my high school’s social justice club last year, it was my responsibility to run our club’s booth during club fairs. During our first club rush in late September 2019, a teacher approached my co-president and me, asking if our club would be interested in participating in a school assembly honoring Red Ribbon Week, a drug prevention campaign for youth that takes place every year Oct. 23-31.
I said we’d think about it, and the teacher wrote down her contact information so we could contact her in case we wanted to sign up.
After researching Red Ribbon Week that night, however, my co-president and I decided our club would not participate. Although the Red Ribbon Campaign’s intention to prevent drug abuse among youth is a noble goal, its views on drugs and addiction reflect a history of ineffective and oppressive drug policies that continue to hurt Black, brown and disabled communities today. Red Ribbon and its parent organization, the National Family Partnership, must reevaluate these views and commit to supporting Black lives in order to fight drug abuse and addiction among youth more effectively.
To understand why this is so important, we must examine the origins of the campaign. In 1980, the National Family Partnership was formed by parents who wanted to play a role in drug prevention, with First Lady Nancy Reagan as an honorary chairperson.
Fast forward to 1984, when hundreds of Mexican soldiers destroyed a giant plantation growing marijuana for the Guadalajara Cartel, a major drug cartel in Mexico. In 1985, Mexican officials working for drug traffickers kidnapped and tortured to death Drug Enforcement Administration agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena Salazar, who provided information to the DEA that led to the destruction of the marijuana plantation.
To honor Camarena’s memory, NFP coordinated the first Red Ribbon Week in 1988 in an effort to raise awareness about the harmful effects of drugs and raise drug-free youth, with President Ronald Reagan as an additional honorary chairperson. Today, hundreds of schools across the country celebrate Red Ribbon Week annually Oct. 23-31.
All this happened in the midst of Ronald Reagan’s expansion of the war on drugs, started by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Although the Reagans claimed that they were fighting to protect the country from the destructive effects of drugs, their efforts enforced unnecessary harm onto marginalized communities.
For example, Nancy Reagan’s words about drugs villainized drug users, especially those who were Black, framing drug addiction and overdose as a moral issue rather than a public health issue. “Drug criminals are ingenious. They work every day to plot a new and better way to steal our children’s lives, just as they’ve done by developing this new drug, crack,” Nancy Reagan said in her speech for “Just Say No,” an advertising campaign that she created as part of the war on drugs.
Shortly afterward, Ronald Reagan signed into law the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which disproportionately punished crack cocaine users as compared to powder cocaine users. The law applied the same sentence for the possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine and the possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine, even though the two forms of cocaine have the same chemical composition. In addition, the act poured more federal funds into law enforcement and incarceration than rehabilitation.
According to an American Civil Liberties Union report, crack cocaine is cheaper than powder cocaine and is therefore “more accessible for poor Americans, many of whom are African Americans.” On the other hand, because powder cocaine is much more expensive, its users tend to be more affluent and, often, white.
By further unfairly criminalizing Black communities and portraying drug users as morally defective, the Reagans deterred drug abusers from seeking assistance for their struggles and made the public believe that drug abusers were unworthy of help. Darryl Strawberry, a baseball player who struggled with addiction, said, “The stigma was so wrong for African Americans. They couldn’t get the help they needed because everybody looked at them as ‘less than.’”
In an email interview with TSL, NFP’s Volunteer President Peggy Sapp wrote, “I have never been satisfied with the government’s implementation because it focused too much on law enforcement … I believe the focus needed and needs to be on DEMAND REDUCTION which is PREVENTION and TREATMENT. Nancy Reagan focused on Demand Reduction with her activities but the government itself is hard to change.”
Arguably, however, the fear that Nancy Reagan created surrounding drug use among youth contributed to the destructive school-to-prison pipeline. “Shortly after the First Lady launched her Just Say No campaign, Congress passed the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act in 1986, mandating zero tolerance for any drugs or alcohol found on public school grounds,” writer Aviva Shen wrote for ThinkProgress. This increased police presence in schools, where students were arrested “not only for drug possession but also for minor school code infractions, such as throwing Skittles or violating the dress code.”
In 2016, NFP published an article mourning Nancy Reagan’s death. When NFP described Nancy Reagan as “an inspiration and a catalyst for preventing generations of children from experiencing the devastating consequences of addiction,” they didn’t consider the Black and Indigenous people and families struggling with addiction who couldn’t receive help in the 1980s due to the heightened shame surrounding drug use, for which the Reagans were partially responsible.
We must also recognize the views on marijuana that shaped and continue to guide Red Ribbon. I couldn’t find any evidence that Camarena had malicious intentions in joining the DEA. While his desire to “make a difference” by helping to stop drug abuse was admirable, I also think that his decision to carry out the work that he did for the DEA was misguided, given the agency’s long history of injustice.
Drug abuse is a public health issue, but the DEA has not treated it as such. Instead, it has used punitive law enforcement tactics in an attempt to fight drug abuse rather than tactics grounded in compassion and public health. The DEA ignored — and continues to ignore — doctors’ opposition to marijuana prohibition by classifying marijuana as a Schedule I substance. Drugs in this category are determined to have “the greatest potential for abuse and have no known medical value.” The Drug Policy Alliance wrote that “solutions such as marijuana legalization to reduce the violence of Mexico’s drug war … and models that follow Portugal’s drug laws become increasingly credible.”
Camarena’s torture and murder was an injustice that should never have happened, but if legalizing marijuana reduces the violence of the drug war, then I believe that his role in the destruction of the marijuana plantation ultimately did not help stop drug trafficking. Instead, it contributed to the stigma surrounding marijuana, one that’s been influenced by anti-Indigenous and anti-Mexican sentiments.
Nevertheless, Red Ribbon continues to say no to marijuana legalization, citing detrimental effects on cognitive function in youths.
To be clear, I don’t condone marijuana use among teenagers and children, nor do I think marijuana is harmless. Other advocates of marijuana legalization agree. The DPA, for instance, supports the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act to legalize marijuana in New York, which would protect youth by “reducing access to marijuana and promot[ing] comprehensive, reality-based drug education.”
When Red Ribbon advises against marijuana legalization and implies support of its Schedule I classification, not only does this disregard the people with disabilities and chronic illnesses who benefit enormously from medical marijuana use more than any other medication (which may soon include my brother, who has seizures), but also the historical racism that continues to surround marijuana stigmatization. In fact, of the states that had a marijuana legalization measure on their ballots in this past election, every one voted in favor of legalizing it.
NFP seems to be somewhat misinformed about some of the realities of drug use. “There is no medical society that endorses marijuana use as a cure or treatment,” said Sapp. This isn’t true, as seen in organizations such as the Society of Cannabis Clinicians and Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.
“Certainly, for those who are dying and believe they receive pain relief from marijuana, who can argue with their experience? Except I do wonder why the pill Marinol doesn’t help the person; why do they need to smoke the marijuana when smoking anything creates health problems, especially in the lungs?” Sapp wrote. People who use marijuana for pain relief or seizures aren’t necessarily smoking it — they might take CBD oil instead. Furthermore, someone may not be able to take Marinol capsules if they are allergic to sesame oil.
Nowhere on the NFP website or the Red Ribbon website could I find anything about the devastating impacts of the war on drugs on marginalized groups. Also absent is a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement that countless companies, schools and organizations, including TSL, posted after George Floyd was killed.
While I doubt that NFP intended harm, their silence on these issues, in addition to their ongoing support of problematic figures, gives the impression that they don’t care about marginalized communities. Perhaps they feel these issues are not relevant. Yet there is every reason to care — these communities struggle with the devastating effects of drugs the most, given their limited access to resources that would mitigate their vulnerability to drug abuse.
NFP also seems somewhat misinformed about the connection between racial issues and drugs. When asked how Red Ribbon engages with communities impacted by drug use in an interview with TSL, Sapp wrote, “All communities are impacted by drug use. The media makes us believe that the communities with the biggest drug problems are Black inner city communities … Criminalization and the high rate of Blacks arrested is part of the misconception; more Blacks are arrested because it is easiest to arrest people at parks or hanging out somewhere, the police can’t just break into a suburban home and make an arrest for using and trafficking in drugs. America doesn’t want to accept that drug users look just like them! The real question we need to address is, ‘Why are we trying to numb and deny our feelings by using mind and mood altering drugs?’ Everyone needs to ask themselves that question and the answer [is] unique to the individual.”
While it is perhaps easier to arrest people outside, Sapp doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the reason Black people are arrested at higher rates is racism in law enforcement; this statement implies that it is Black people’s responsibility to stay home if they don’t want to be arrested. Staying home also doesn’t ensure that someone won’t get arrested or harmed by police — Breonna Taylor was killed in her sleep because police suspected that her home was involved in illegal drugs, although no drugs were found during the raid.
Reform in Red Ribbon is long overdue. First, NFP must cut ties with the DEA, which co-sponsors some of its activities and continues to perpetuate racism. Second, Red Ribbon must reevaluate its stance on marijuana and include the voices of Black and Indigenous people, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups in the discussion. Third, NFP must publicly acknowledge the damage caused by the Reagans during the war on drugs and apologize for supporting them.
Fourth, Red Ribbon and NFP must post a statement of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and include information about the societal factors that influence drug use in their materials.
When asked why they didn’t post a statement, Sapp wrote in an email to TSL, “We work all year to encourage fairness, justice and responsibility from and for each and every individual. We watch institutions and promote the same set of values, beliefs and responsibility in the institution as in the individual.” Nevertheless, I believe that explicit acknowledgment of the racial issues facing Black people is still necessary. If you don’t specifically mention them, people won’t pay attention to solving these issues; they will only continue.
Although Red Ribbon does discuss the roles of families, stress and peer pressure, the factors behind drug abuse extend to a societal level. For example, the stress that stems from having to deal with racism, ableism, homophobia and other forms of oppression may influence people to turn to drugs. Additionally, discrimination can hinder the journey to recovery; many treatment programs do not welcome LGBTQIA+ individuals.
“The trends in social service funding targets specific populations with titles like: High risk, underserved, and provide little funding for Universal Prevention; ignoring the fact that the entire population is a high risk for drug use and abuse,” Sapp wrote in a message to Informed Families Blog. “By not speaking to the entire population we [unwittingly] create second-class citizens of those we target. How? By placing labels on them and ignoring the social ‘do drugs messages’ society is creating and reinforcing. Since drug use is a disease of DENIAL AND BLAME, we let the people not targeted off they feel that we are not talking to them but to the ‘poor unfortunate.’”
Despite her concern that more privileged people may not think that drug abuse can affect their communities, I think it’s possible to specifically address marginalized and underserved groups while not ignoring the rest of the population. People can talk about how drug abuse impacts everyone and then at the same time feature web pages that focus on how it affects certain groups, such as women, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folks, like how DPA has done on their website in the dropdown menu underneath the Issues category.
I also don’t think it will create second-class citizens of these groups. In fact, I believe not talking about them could make people less likely to engage with the campaign. For instance, I have ADHD and take medication to improve my concentration and complete tasks more easily. I am always careful not to abuse it. However, if I consistently have a lot of work to do that can’t necessarily be avoided (which is often), I am more vulnerable to abusing it. It’s the quickest solution that I can turn to when I don’t have time to engage in suggested alternate activities to drug use, such as exercise. I suspect I’m not the only one with this problem. If Red Ribbon doesn’t specifically discuss this, the people facing this situation might not consider Red Ribbon’s goals relevant to their needs.
Finally, Red Ribbon should encourage schools and teachers to talk to students about the role of systemic oppression in drug abuse not only during Red Ribbon Week but throughout the year, teaching students that drug abuse isn’t merely an individual choice but a systemic issue as well. These reforms will enable Red Ribbon to reach some of the most vulnerable populations in fighting drug abuse.
Luciénne Reyes PZ ’24 is from Los Angeles, California. Although her club did not participate, she chose to individually participate in her school’s Red Ribbon assembly by presenting a speech about the history of the war on drugs and what Red Ribbon can do to help marginalized populations.