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In Nancy Reagan’s own words: ‘Drugs ruin lives’

Nancy Reagan in 1984 after her husband, President Ronald Reagan, was reelected.
Nancy Reagan in 1984 after her husband, President Ronald Reagan, was reelected. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Never in my life have I felt as compelled to do something about an issue as I feel about this one. My primary purpose in this battle against drugs is to draw attention to the problem, to make people aware and get them involved. That's why I decided to travel around the country to visit as many drug rehabilitation centers and prevention programs as possible and talk to as many young people as possible.

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The things I have seen and heard in the last few years are enough to make the strongest hearts break. Drugs ruin lives before they have a chance to develop and then compound the damage by destroying the family ties that offer the best hope.

I have traveled thousands of miles talking with kids, listening to them, asking them questions, and learning a good deal. They talked about drugs I'd never even beard of. I heard how drugs had killed their hope, their promise, their spirit, and their love. And how drugs had turned them against their friends and families and toward a world of pain and isolation.

The victims are getting younger all the time. Not long ago, I visited a third-grade class at the East Rivers Elementary School in Atlanta. It struck me as odd to see little boys in Cub Scout uniforms and little girls in jumpers learning about drugs that even adults can't handle. The scene was both terrifying and encouraging. Terrifying that drugs are such a problem that even third-graders must be prepared to deal with them. And encouraging in that we finally are fighting back to prevent drugs from taking any more of our children.

The statistics are as chilling as they are impressive. The 1982 findings in the National Survey on Drug Abuse show slightly more than 2.5 million kids between the ages of 12 and 17 are using marijuana on a monthly basis and over six million youths from that same age group use alcohol each month. Although these numbers represent a decline since the 1979 survey -- when nearly four million kids used marijuana and 8.5 million used alcohol each month -- there is still a long way to go.

The numbers — as well as the thousands of letters I receive from all over the country — tell that drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions. Right now, it is like one of those dread diseases for which there is no cure. It crosses all boundaries. Rich and poor are not immune. Neither are the educated nor the noneducated, black or white. Drugs have invaded cities all across America as well as rural areas.

The closest thing to a vaccine that exists is parent groups. The parent movement is helping to reclaim the children who are afflicted with this disease called drug abuse. Parents are banding together and they are having a powerful impact on the drug crisis. Parent groups are devoted to stopping drug abuse and educating other parents.

Our top priority is prevention. It is safer and more effective to thwart drug abuse before it begins than to wait after the fact and hope that young person will come in for treatment -- an emergency procedure in which we sometimes lose the patient. We must begin to educate parents, as well as their children, to the dangers of drugs.

We are making progress. In the past three years, the number of parent groups has grown from 1,000 to more than 4,000 across the country. I think the parents have shown the professionals that something can be done on a scale larger than previously believed. But the progress we could make would be even greater with the help of more parent groups.

Kids are helping kids, too. I've met young people who have struggled desperately to overcome drugs and have succeeded. And they are using that pain that they've endured to tell the truth about drugs to other children. Last year when I went to the Palmer Drug Abuse Conference in Dallas I saw some of these young people who had won their personal battle against drugs. They had lost so much as a result of drugs -- friends, family, and even their identity, which they were working to rebuild -- but they gained credibility without even trying. When they speak about drug and alcohol, other young people listen.

The White House is committed to the drive against drugs. My husband's concern is as strong and deep as mine. And I intend to keep the spotlight on drug abuse as long as I'm here. What we need more than anything else to solve the drug problem is committed, determined, active people who will work together.

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