As another week goes by in American politics, it becomes increasingly clear that the Republican Party is haunted. The Republican Party appears to be haunted by spectres of days gone by, and unfortunately, the party faithful seem to be listening to those long-dead spirits. No greater example of this hex exists than the recent announcement by President Trump of his plan for combating the opioid epidemic facing the United States. To the surprise of many, Mr. Trump announced a state of emergency regarding the nation’s opioid epidemic, and his plan for combating this state of affairs was simple. Mr. Trump’s plan for fighting the opioid epidemic is to tell kids not to use opioids. In other words, Mr. Trump’s advice is to “Just Say No”.

“Just Say No” to Bad Policy

In my work trying to bring the issue of marijuana reform to the forefront of Republican policy-making, I have often heard “old guard” Republicans parrot Nancy Reagan’s infamous “Just Say No” to drugs mantra. For many in the party, the issue of drug use is perceived as a personal failing on the part of an individual. According to this line of logic, addicts are just lazy, morally contemptible people, who leech off the welfare state and contribute nothing to society. The fundamental elements of this line of thinking have not diminished in the Republican Party, but its delivery has changed to meet with current political realities.

These days it is not politically expedient to demonize those addicted to drugs. Many of the hardest hit areas are white, working-class communities in “middle America” rather than predominantly minority communities residing in inner cities. Although the party knows it cannot condemn this group’s addiction as a moral failing, current Republican leadership has not adapted its policy message to account for the shift in tone.

“Just Say No” still resonates with the party faithful because it remains a simple solution to a complex problem which requires no concrete policy change. Just as crack cocaine ravaged inner city minority communities in Nancy Reagan’s era, opioids now ravage suburban, white, working-class communities.  Unfortunately, “Just Say No” was, and remains, a convenient way to offer a solution to the drug abuse problem without having to take any steps to address the systemic reasons for the epidemic.  

Mr. Trump’s return to the simple “Just Say No” message is a calculated move. The message hearkens back to the days of Reagan, while once again failing to address the systemic issues fuelling the opioid epidemic. No doubt this message will be fondly received by the traditionalists of the party. Mr. Trump had an opportunity to “just say no” to this unsuccessful and ineffective policy and embrace new and effective means of combating opioid use. The members of the opioid commission whom Mr. Trump tasked with finding a solution to the epidemic ignored approximately eight thousand recommendations to consider marijuana as an alternative pain treatment. Despite increasingly clear scientific and medical research which demonstrates that marijuana is a safe, effective, and non-addictive pain-relief alternative to opioids, the federal government continues to ignore the medical and scientific community.

Exorcising Nancy Reagan’s Ghost

The real change the Republican Party must embrace when addressing the issue of drugs is that addiction is not a moral failing. Hundreds of thousands of Americans suffer from addiction, and few, if any, ever intended to become addicted. “Just saying no” to drugs is not a solution to the issue of drug abuse, particularly when it is doctors who are telling you to take the drugs. Currently, most people who become addicted to opioids go to their doctor seeking pain relief, only to leave with a crippling addiction. People suffer from all sorts of pain, whether it be workplace injuries, psychological scars from trauma, or simple injuries from day-to-day life. People should not be condemned for seeking relief from that suffering. Rather, these people ought to be given a safe, effective alternative such as marijuana. Unfortunately, it appears that the spirits of the past are too hard for the Republican Party to exorcise at this time.

Hunter J. White is the Communications Director of the national Republican political organization, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, or RAMP, a Non-Profit 501-c3 organization dedicated to the complete repeal of marijuana prohibition in all its forms. In this series of articles, Hunter shares the challenges, experiences, and insights that he has gained from years of working to bring marijuana policy reform to the Republican Party. 

Banner Image: Washington DC. USA, 1985 First Lady Nancy Reagan at the "Just Say No Club" event on the South Lawn of the White House (Mark Reinstein / Shutterstock.com).