Sessions doubles down on his support for the "war on drugs," with a nod to 'Just Say No'

Getty Images

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions came out as a big fan of former first lady Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" anti-drug use campaign of the 1980s and '90s. 

Speaking to a room full of federal, state and local law enforcement professionals Wednesday in Richmond, Virginia, Sessions said combatting violent crime and restoring public safety means police will have to get tougher on illegal drug use and sales.

"I think we have too much of a tolerance for drug use," Sessions said to police chiefs, sheriffs and federal agents gathered at the SunTrust building in Richmond. "We need to say, as Nancy Reagan said, 'just say no.'"

Sessions' endorsement of President Ronald Reagan's campaign — often referred to as the "war on drugs," included zero-tolerance law enforcement policies. A revival of these policies, which Sessions also promoted earlier in March, likely means that harsh punishment of adolescents and lifelong consequences of criminalization for people of color will become a byproduct of this Trump administration strategy.

"In the '80s and '90s, we saw how campaigns stressing prevention brought down drug use and addiction. We can do this again," reads the text of Sessions' prepared speech, which he veered from at times.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers his speech in Richmond, Virginia.  Steve Helber/AP

Fact check: The policies did not work as intended. Reagan's campaign was seen as the foundation of drug-related mass incarceration that grew markedly worse in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. Above all, Reagan's anti-drug message had no long-term effect in reducing U.S. rates of drug use.

Three decades since the "Just Say No" heyday, nearly half of Americans admit to having tried marijuana. Heroin and opioid abuse ravage overwhelmingly white and middle class communities, and states are increasingly legalizing weed for recreational use. Meanwhile, even though rates of drug use were no higher, proportionally, in black and Latino communities than in white communities, anti-drug law enforcement operations were often targeted and harshest in communities of color.

For example, African-Americans, who make up roughly 13% of the U.S. population, were 31.7% of drug arrestees in 2011, FBI data show. Zero-tolerance drug possession policies in public schools led to the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon that saw black and Latino students disproportionately suspended from school and sent to juvenile detention centers.

As adults, some black and Latino youths who grew up in the "Just Say No" era were likelier to encounter the criminal justice system. This also meant that they had hard times finding jobs with employers who discriminated against the formerly incarcerated, and were barred from public safety net programs such as housing aid and financial aid for college.

Source: Mr. Immature/YouTube

But despite a recent bipartisan push to enact criminal justice reforms to address these disparities and outcomes, Sessions said he will buck the trend of the moment. "Too many lives are at stake to worry about being fashionable," Sessions said Wednesday. "Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs will destroy your life."

Drugs are inarguably destroying lives, families and communities of all stripes. But Sessions, with his reported history of racial blind spots, seems to ignore that contact with the criminal justice system wrecks black and Latino lives too.