What finally arrived, from eBay, was a veritable time capsule of drug-war hysteria and good intentions gone awry. The game, which purports to "help kids say no to drugs and alcohol," is intended for children as young as five. Players move around the board by answering open-ended questions intended as conversational ice-breakers between kids and any responsible authority figures they might be playing with.
Some of the questions are pretty straightforward -- "Why is it dangerous to drink alcohol and drive a car?" Or "Why do you think it is a good idea to say no to drugs and alcohol?"
Others are borderline creepy: "Do you like to keep secrets? When do you like being alone?" And many others delve into specifics of drug use that are frankly inappropriate to pose to elementary school-aged kids: "Is crack the same as cocaine? What is angel dust? What does marijuana look like?"
In order to understand this game, you have understand the historic moment that produced it. In the late 80s and early 90s, concern about drugs was at a fever pitch. In 1989, 64 percent of Americans called drug abuse the most significant problem facing the nation in a New York Times/CBS poll. Sociologists Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda called this "one of the most intense preoccupations by the American public on any issue in polling history." Politicians spoke about drugs in apocalyptic terms: In 1986 Ronald Reagan invoked a "nationwide crusade against drugs, a sustained, relentless effort to rid America of this scourge."
This context produced a barrage of anti-drug PSAs and programs targeted at America's youth, with the intention of keeping kids off drugs at any costs. But Just Say No, and other programs like it, like DARE, ultimately failed at reducing drug use among youngsters. Rates of teen drug use increased sharply in the 1990s, according to data tracked by the University of Michigan's Monitoring The Future project.
Part of the reason for this is that all the focus on drug use, complete with showing kids samples of drugs and teaching them the street names of everything from PCP to methamphetamines, may simply have made them more curious to try drugs to see what all of the fuss was about. Researchers who've studied the effects of anti-drug campaigns on children have found that too much focus on drugs can lead to a curiosity gap that inquisitive youngsters naturally want to fill.
Today we're a long way off from the hysteria that produced the Just Say No game and its ilk. The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy -- the nerve center of the federal government's anti-drug efforts -- has retired the phrase "war on drugs" completely, to the great consternation of some of the most ardent drug warriors of the past.
And the board game is now, quite literally, little more than a museum relic -- a copy of it sits on display at the Reagan Library.