When intolerance is the law
The term "zero tolerance" is best known in the context of public schools where, as applied to violence and drugs, it means that no leeway or discretion is permitted in the punishment of behavior that in many cases was considered routine just a generation ago. Unbending as it is, the zero tolerance approach has led to an embarrassing parade of children suspended from classes for playing cops and robbers or keeping aspirin in their backpacks.
We might be forgiven, then, for suspecting that government officials see American citizens as wayward children as they increasingly apply zero tolerance to laws and policies that reach far beyond the playground.
Of particular interest at the moment is the federal government's jihad against hemp -- plants related to marijuana, but bred for the quality of their fibers rather than their ability to evoke bouts of giggling. In fact, hemp contains only trace amounts of THC, the chemical in marijuana that acts as an intoxicant.
Historically, tough hemp fibers have been used to make rope and cloth. Hemp has also long been used in cosmetics and some food products. Based on a reinterpretation of the law, the Drug Enforcement Administration recently decided that the use of hemp containing any scientifically detectable trace of THC has been illegal since the passage of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
In its wisdom -- and to avoid looking too draconian -- the DEA has argued in federal court that zero tolerance for THC applies only to edible products. If taken seriously, though, the drug warriors' decision should effectively ban "any material, compound, mixture, or preparation," that contains a trace of the offending marijuana-derived chemical -- including a whole lot of rope.
Common Sense for Drug Policy, an organization devoted to trimming the worst offenses of drug prohibition, points out that "banning hemp products based on their level of THC is like banning poppy seeds for their trace amounts of opiates."
Oddly enough, the DEA's reinterpretation of the 1970 law would seem to do just that, if applied uniformly to all of its sections. You might want to stock up on poppy seed bagels now.
Discussion of the wisdom and morality of drug prohibition held aside for another day, zero tolerance for even trace amounts of an illegal intoxicant makes sense in a brutal, unthinking sort of way. A ban is a ban -- it doesn't have to make sense. But you'd think that more discretion would be exercised in the regulation of legal products, wouldn't you?
The crackdown of the past two decades against drunk driving certainly started with good intentions. Activists sought to reduce highway deaths and injuries by targeting those who sat behind the wheels of their vehicles with their judgment and reactions seriously impaired.
But that was then -- now the crackdown turns its attention not to intoxication, but to mere traces of alcohol in the blood. Anticipating the DEA by several years, anti-drunk-driving activists went beyond tests for drunkenness to impose blood alcohol limits. Originally set around .10 percent, Congress has now mandated .08 percent as the new standard. In fact, though, the average blood alcohol content of drunk drivers involved in fatal accidents is around .18 percent. That sky-high concentration of alcohol has long been illegal for drivers and subject to serious penalties.
Even so, activists see no reason not to criminalize even a passing acquaintance with alcohol. Steve Simon of Minnesota's Criminal Justice System DWI Task Force has been quoted as saying, "If .08% is good, .05% is better É ultimately it should be .02%."
"Keep in mind, warns the Center for Consumer Freedom, "that someone can reach .02% BAC with just one beer, glass of wine, mixed drink or even one dose of Nyquil."
Under a zero-tolerance standard for alcohol in the blood, the only place to enjoy a drink might be in your own back yard -- as long as you don't accompany that beverage with a cigarette.
In a move reported around the world, Montgomery County, Maryland passed a law that threatened people with fines if tobacco smoke could be smelled coming from their homes. Amidst international ridicule, the measure was promptly vetoed.
Unsuccessful as it was, Montgomery County's zero tolerance gambit was only a step ahead of other jurisdictions. After all, for years politicians and activists have claimed the authority to forbid the owners of offices and restaurants to permit smoking. Once the right of property owners to make their own decisions is pushed aside in the name of the anti-tobacco crusade, how far removed from a private business is a private home?
Even the open sky offers little refuge for smokers. Last summer, the Christian Science Monitor reported that "93 communities now have ordinances covering smoking outside."
Taking zero tolerance to (one hopes) its ultimate reach short of outright prohibition, the city of Temple Terrace, Florida, won't even hire people who use tobacco.
Even as zero tolerance creeps into society at large, it has drawn fire for its better-known application in schools.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Professor John R. Lott Jr. asked of school zero tolerance policies, "What are we really teaching children by zero tolerance? To see evil where none exists? Or that justice is arbitrary and authorities are waiting to get you?"
William L. Anderson, an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig von Mises Institute suggested that the zero tolerance approach "is just one more tool that the public school establishment employs to control people."
Control does seem to be the key. In all of its applications, zero tolerance extends well beyond behavior that poses any conceivable threat to people or property. Anti-tobacco zealots want to sniff out violators who puff away in their own homes. The DEA, to enforce the ban on trace amounts of THC, and the police, seeking out violations of ever-tighter blood alcohol limits, must use scientific testing equipment to detect violations that are invisible to human senses.
Last year, the American Bar Association warned that Zero tolerance "has redefined students as criminals, with unfortunate consequences." The group recommended that schools drop the policies in favor of more flexible rules.
If zero tolerance policies are inappropriate when applied to children who aren't yet ready to assume the full freedoms of maturity, then they're certainly perverse when imposed on adults.
This column was published April 27, 2002 by The Farmington Daily Times