Zero Tolerance And Us Drug Control Policy

Zero tolerance was a federal drug policy initiated during the War on Drugs campaign of the Reagan and Bush administrations (1981-1993). Under this policy, which was designed to prohibit the transfer of illicit drugs across U.S. borders, no possession, import, or exportation of illicit drugs was tolerable, and possession of any measurable amount of illicit drugs was subject to all available civil and criminal sanctions. Zero tolerance was an example of a criminal justice approach to drug control. Under such an approach, the control of drugs rests within the domain of the criminal justice system, and the use of drugs is regarded as a criminal act, with legal sanction as the consequence.

Zero tolerance is a "user-focused" strategy of drug control, according to which law-enforcement agents target users of illicit drugs as opposed to dealers or transporters. The rationale for this approach is that the users of illicit substances create the demand for drugs and constitute the root cause of the drug problem. If, therefore, demand for drugs can be curbed by exacting harsh penalties on users, the supply of drugs into the country will slow.

The zero-tolerance policy was initiated by the U.S. Customs Service, in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney's office in San Diego, California, as part of an effort to stop drug trafficking across the U.S.-Mexican border. Individuals in possession of illicit drugs were arrested and charged with both a misdemeanor and a felony offense. Customs Service officials believed the policy to be successful at reducing the flow of drugs across the border and recommended that it be implemented nationwide. Subsequently, the National Drug Policy Board, in conjunction with the White House Conference on a Drug-Free America had all federal drug-enforcement agencies implement zero tolerance in 1988, at all U.S. points of entry (United States Congress, 1988).

The policy did not involve enacting new laws or regulations; it only entailed instituting strict interpretation and enforcement of existing laws. In practice, it meant that any type of vehicle—

including bicycles, transfer trucks, and yachts— would be confiscated and the passengers arrested upon the discovery of any measurable amount of illicit drugs. The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Customs Service began to crack down on all cases of drug possession on the water and at all borders. If, during the course of their regular patrols and inspections, Coast Guard personnel boarded a vessel and found one marijuana cigarette, or even the remnants of a marijuana cigarette, they arrested the individual and seized the boat. Before this policy was instituted, the Coast Guard had either looked the other way or issued fines when ''personal-use'' quantities of illicit substances were discovered (United States Congress, 1988).

Zero tolerance was criticized because federal agencies expended substantial resources to identify individual drug users instead of concentrating their resources on halting the influx of major quantities of drugs into the country for street sale. The policy of seizing boats upon the discovery of trace amounts of drugs was also controversial. Some believed the policy to be an unfair and unusually harsh punishment; seizing a commercial boat that was the sole source of income for an individual or family was denounced as being too severe a penalty for possession of ''one marijuana cigarette.'' There were some highly publicized cases of commercial fishing boats being seized on scant evidence that the boat owner was responsible for the illicit drugs found.

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