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Remarks at the National Conference on Corporate Initiatives for a Drug Free Workplace

June 9, 1988

Well, thank you, Irwin Lerner. Thank you all very much. And I join you in recognizing Congressman Ben Gilman for all that he has been doing up on the Hill in regard to this problem. It's a pleasure to be here with you, this National Conference on Corporate Initiatives for a Drug Free Workplace, and I am delighted by the strong leadership that the business community is showing in this vital effort.

You know, I've been speaking out about the problem of illegal drugs for a very long time now. When I began doing so as Governor of California, the times were very different. In fact, a conference of this type would have been unlikely, and had it been held, there probably would have been pickets out in front. Well, when I arrived here today there were no pickets and no petitions, no demonstrators, no protests. I circled the block a couple times while we checked to make sure it was the right hotel. [Laughter] The truth is that attitudes toward illegal drugs really have changed. We can see it in the media. We can see it among our youth. And we can see it on the floor of Congress.

Though the struggle for a drug free America has not yet been won, the moral and cultural battle to define the threat of illegal drugs is clear. And it's all of us who are on the winning side, part of the overwhelming consensus against illegal drugs in America. An important symbol of that consensus and of the distance that we've traveled as a society is that our drug policy today is one of zero tolerance. That means absolutely, positively none -- no exceptions.

I have to tell you that I am especially proud of the antidrug work that Nancy, who you so generously mentioned, has done that's changed the way we talk and think about illegal drugs. It was not that long ago that the message to our young people was that experimenting with illegal drugs was not only harmless but was kind of a good thing, an instant path to popularity and sophistication. The social stigma all too often was not on the drug user but on the young person who refused to try drugs. As I've said before, the tragic fact is that many young people began using drugs not to rebel or escape but just to fit in.

In many ways our country is still paying for the erosion of our values and the decline in self-responsibility that occurred in the 1960's and the 1970's. The students of that period who used illegal drugs in high school or college have, in many cases, taken their destructive drug habits with them into their places of employment. What we've found is that drug users at work pose a threat to their coworkers and represent a corporate crisis and a national catastrophe.

What was once defended as a so-called victimless crime we now find is costing America billions of dollars a year in lost productivity. We're finding that drug users are two or three times more likely to skip work as nonusers and three or four times as likely to be involved in accidents when they do show up. They're more likely to steal from their employers, and their health care costs are substantially higher. It's no surprise that 92 percent of all Americans say they don't want to work around someone who gets high during the day, and who can blame them? Having seen the damage caused by illegal drugs in the workplace, our message is simple: Let's get those blasted drugs out now!

The good news is that there has been a major change of attitude in America, and the work that you're doing now is an important part of it. The momentum has shifted from those who celebrated the drug subculture to the people who just say no and help others to do the same. Illegal drugs and drug use are not being tolerated anymore. Yes, the enemy, illegal drug use, is still out there and still a threat. But today illegal drug use is an enemy that has no defenders. Not only is an ever-increasing number of Americans personally rejecting the use of illegal drugs, but the country as a whole is moving to deglamorize and depopularize their use.

Law enforcement authorities, such as the police, the Coast Guard, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Customs Service, are critical players in the war on drugs -- but there are limits on what can be accomplished on the supply side. There must also be stern social sanctions on the user of illegal drugs and broad societal support for individuals being drug free. It is this change in attitudes that, I believe, makes total victory in the war on drugs not just possible but ultimately certain.

The glamorizing of drugs in film and music that was so much a part of the ``progressive'' culture has declined, and instead the most popular entertainment stars and sports celebrities are warning our young people that using drugs is dangerous for their health and bad for their image. Now, it just seems the other day, a quite popular motion picture, a comedy starring several feminine stars, one of the big comedy scenes was all of them sitting around and passing the joint around, and then the hilarity and so forth, and that was considered just fine to get laughs in the theater and all. Well, thank heaven we don't see that anymore. The entertainment world has joined your club.

We're also becoming increasingly intolerant of illegal drugs on our college and university campuses. And employers are stating right up front that illegal drug use will be hazardous to their workers' careers. Some very encouraging news about the prospects for a drug free work force came in last year's annual survey of high school seniors. The survey showed that the Just Say No message is getting through to the new generation of workers. Almost all students said it was wrong to even try a drug like cocaine. And the percentage of students who indicated that they were currently using illegal drugs was lower, much lower, than in previous years.

You in the business community are playing a critical role in America's transition to a drug free society. You're providing drug education to your employees. You're offering counseling and treatment to help men and women escape from drug dependency. You're providing drug testing to help deter and detect illegal drug use. And you send a strong message to your work force and community that your company has zero tolerance for illegal drugs and that users must be held responsible for their illicit drug use. You make it clear that not only are drug users not part of the ``in crowd,'' but unless they quit taking illegal drugs they'll be part of the out-of-work crowd.

Most importantly, in everything you do, you keep the focus on the user, and this is vital. We're confiscating more drugs at the border than ever before in history. We're convicting more drug dealers and giving them longer sentences. We're eradicating more drug fields around the world, devoting more resources to drug enforcement than ever before, and bringing the military into an unprecedented level of support in the battle against illegal drugs. But in the final analysis, the focus must be on the user, because so long as there's a demand for illegal drugs, there will be a powerful financial incentive for drug traffickers to satisfy that demand. Ultimately, the solution requires transforming illegal drug users into nonusers. And the antidrug programs you're conducting in the workplace are an essential part in this effort.

As you work to get drugs out of your offices and plants, it's important to remember the problem of illegal drug use is a global problem. You may know, for example, that Nancy, in addition to all that she's done at home, has organized two international conferences of first ladies to discuss the drug problem, one held at the White House, the other held at the United Nations. And just this afternoon, Nancy will be addressing 1,300 women from countries around the world who are attending the World Gas Conference. So, in many nations and in many languages, there are young people learning the words "just say no.''

I've got to interject something here about that. You know where that came from? Nancy was speaking to a school, to a classroom out in Oakland, California. And a little girl stood up and said, "But what do we do when someone offers us drugs?'' And Nancy said, "Well, just say no.'' Today there are over 12,000 Just Say No clubs in schools across the United States -- all from just one single remark in one single classroom.

I hope that the leading role taken by American business to get illegal drugs out of the workplace will be expanded here at home and duplicated abroad. Some people may look at the drug problem and throw up their hands, not knowing where to begin. Then there are people like you who look at the drug problem and roll up their sleeves and get to work. What you're doing is making a real difference. Drug education, counseling, treatment, and testing -- these are powerful tools. I'm proud that American business has willingly taken on this vital effort. By doing this, you're helping your coworkers, you're helping your companies, you're helping the American economy, and you're helping to bring us closer to fulfilling our goal of a drug free America.

And with regard to the private initiative, early in my first term, at a dinner party at the White House, the wife of an Ambassador of a European country sitting beside me heard some talk at our table about one or two of the programs going on here, not just for drugs but I mean of a private nature. And very quietly she said to me, "Yes, but you're unique.'' And I said, "What? What do you mean unique?'' She said, "Yes, in America, you'll do that that way -- private people.'' She said, "The rest of us in the rest of the world, we wait for government to do it.''

Well, I'm sure that many of you know already that in the last couple of years meetings have been held in Paris and in London at the invitation of our neighboring and friendly trading partners in the world, and they have invited people like you to come over there and tell them how to establish private sector initiatives and private sector work in getting problems solved. And here in our own country, just last year the private giving of money, alone, to worthy causes totaled $84 billion. You know how much the Government would have to raise to be able to spend $84 billion? [Laughter] About three times that amount for the administrative overhead. [Laughter] Well, again, I just want to thank you all. And I feel greatly honored to be a part of this, even for these few minutes.

Note: The President spoke at 11:22 a.m. in the Constitution Ballroom at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. He was introduced by Irwin Lerner, president and chief executive officer of Hoffmann-La Roche, which sponsored the conference.