Picturing the drug raids of the ‘Just Say No’ era

If there’s one thing all middle-schoolers learn in health class, it’s that you don’t have to do drugs to be cool.

Richard Nixon declared that drugs were “public enemy number one” in 1971, but anti-drug education really hit its stride during the ’80s and early ’90s, thanks to programs like D.A.R.E. and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. As incarceration for drug offenses skyrocketed, teachers urged schoolchildren to resist peer pressure.

But the coolest “kids” of all—as documented in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s photo archives—weren’t straight-laced teenagers. Instead, they were the cops who carried out the biggest drug busts.   

There’s a rough formula to these pictures: enormous bags of cocaine, a few guns, and several fat stacks of cash, fanned out in all their illicit glory.     

Equally prominent are the law enforcement officers who obtained the loot in the first place.  Some of them wear suits and ties. Some cross their arms coolly and survey their bounty.

In one photo from 1989, Allegheny County police Lt. Robert Kanith casually poses with $65,000 of confiscated cash in his arms. That year saw a significant increase in Pittsburgh drug policing. At the time, Lt. Kanith said the department had made at least 500 drug busts, compared to the previous year’s 400, and 1,321 drug arrests by the end of November, compared to the previous year’s 905. About 300 of the year’s arrests were related to a drug that police had “rarely seen here before”: crack.

In another picture from 1989, Harry Callithen, deputy superintendent of Western Penitentiary, holds out his hand while holding contraband substances for the photographer to capture. Dick Winter, the county’s assistant police superintendent, smokes a cigarette (at least he’s wearing gloves) while examining a kilo of cocaine, packaged in Cartier wrapping, after a 1992 raid.  

You almost forget they’re handling evidence.   

Images of the arrests show a less glamorous side of the story. One picture shows a uniformed narcotics officer leaning down to berate a suspect. Another shows a 13-year-old girl sobbing in the hallway of her house in Homestead as police officers sweep it for cocaine.

In November 1983, Jim Zarroli, a reporter with The Pittsburgh Press, wrote an article about cocaine that asked, “how safe, how sneaky is this currently chic drug?”

“The little knot of people with their heads together at a party or in a dimly lit corner of a Pittsburgh bar may be discussing world politics Or they may be engaging in an increasingly popular party game — snorting cocaine,” Mr. Zarroli warned.

Loot from a Wilkinsburg drug raid: five kilos of cocaine and two handguns. (Bob Donaldson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2/6/92)
Loot from a Wilkinsburg drug raid: five kilos of cocaine and two handguns. (Bob Donaldson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2/6/92)

The Post-Gazette’s pictures tell us that the “chic drug” became something much bigger than a fad. 

Marella Gayla is an intern at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a rising senior at Harvard. You can find her on Twitter @marellagayla.