Zero Tolerance As A General Policy

The term zero tolerance has a broader application than the Reagan-Bush drug interdiction approach. Zero tolerance describes a perspective on drug use according to which it is maintained that the use of any amount of illicit drugs is harmful to the individual and society and that the goal of drug policy should be to prohibit any and all illicit drug use. According to the contrasting viewpoint, the simple use of drugs is distinguishable from problem drug use and although absence of all drug use is desirable, the resources of government would be used more efficiently if they targeted individuals who demonstrated problem use or if they addressed problems related to or caused by illicit drug use.

Drug testing in the workplace typically uses a zero tolerance approach. In the late 1970s, employ ees challenged these policies in the courts. However, the U.S. Supreme Court, in New York City Transit Authority v. Beazer, 440 U.S. 568, 99 S.Ct. 1355, 59 L.Ed.2d 587 (1979), ruled that a city agency's blanket exclusion of persons who regularly use narcotic drugs did not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This zero tolerance decision subsequently has been extended to various employment situations. By 2000, many employers routinely required a drug test as part of the employee hiring process. Applicants who failed the test usually are not hired because employers use a zero tolerance drug policy.

Zero tolerance policies have become a standard part of U.S. public schools. With the rash of school shootings in the 1990s, zero tolerance weapons policies have dominated the news, yet zero tolerance drug polices are also part of school rules. Zero tolerance has widespread public support, as it mandates high standards and signifies a ''get tough'' attitude toward drugs and school violence. Nevertheless, there are many critics of zero tolerance polices. Critics analogize zero tolerance to mandatory minimum sentencing in the criminal justice system. Under both schemes there are no exceptions made for individual circumstances; this results in punishments that appear excessive, such as a student suspension for bringing aspirin to school without permission.

(See also: Drug Interdiction; Operation Intercept; U.S. Government: The Organization of U.S. Drug Policy)


United States Congress. House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation. (1988). ''Zero Tolerance'' drug policy and confiscation of property: Hearing before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Navigation of the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries (House of Representatives, 100th Congress, 2nd session). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Curwin, R. L. & Mendler, A. N. (1999). Zero tolerance for zero tolerance. Phi Delta Kappan 81, 119.

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