The phrase “zero tolerance” derives from the physical sciences, and first began cropping up in public discourse in the 1970s. Curiously, perhaps because it is so intrinsically absolute, it always occurred in a moral context — in debates over environmental policy, or welfare cheats. But we can thank Ronald Reagan for giving us a good healthy shove down the road to shitdom, and then ourselves for going along with it.
In May 1981, a Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler jet crashed on the deck of the aircraft carrier Nimitz, and autopsies revealed that six of the 14 sailors killed had been smoking pot. Then–Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas Hayward launched a new policy of zero tolerance for drug abuse, saying, “Not on my watch, not in my division, not in my Navy.” The policy spread quickly throughout the military, but that wasn’t enough for Reagan. In 1982, Reagan created the Vice President’s Anti-Drug Task Force under George Bush — first to tackle marijuana trafficking in Miami, then all drugs everywhere. Ron coordinated with his wife Nancy, who had already begun her infamous “Just Say No” campaign. Bush took his cues from the military and involved it heavily in interdiction.
Spending on drug interdiction tripled under the Reagan administration, but so did cocaine shipments, according to the DEA. Undaunted, in 1986 Reagan called for a renewed commitment against “public enemy number one.”
“The next step in the crusade for a drug-free America . . . is to enforce a policy of zero tolerance of illegal drug use.”
The timing of Reagan’s initial Drug War address said a lot about the way we’ve run things ever since. Just as he was announcing the Anti-Drug Task Force in 1982, a hefty report comprising six years of research from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences landed on his desk. Titled “An Analysis of Marijuana Policy,” the report openly recommended decriminalization of marijuana and states’ regulation of its sale and distribution.
“On the same day that that report came out, President Reagan came out with his first big Drug War speech,” says Kevin Zeese, former head of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws and now president of Common Sense for Drug Policy. “He talked about ‘raising the battle flag’ and ‘no tolerance for drugs.’ Most people haven’t heard about that National Academy of Sciences report, because Reagan stole the day. He had the bully pulpit.”
Reagan’s true genius was that he could come off as a Johnson while acting like a shit. He shrugged off his scientific advisers as just another bunch of pinheads and pushed ahead with uncompromising criminalization. Along the way, he gutted an already inadequate treatment budget and closed clinics across the country. Just in time for the appearance of crack in 1982 and the explosion of drug-related crime, especially gang crime, which seemed to validate his approach.
“I think it began with the ‘get tough’ movement of the early ’70s or so,” says Mauer, “with that politically inspired approach that identified crime as being a product of individuals doing bad things, rather than looking at a whole set of causes and options. Once the punishment model was in place, then it kept getting ratcheted up.”
And in case you think I’m ignoring Richard Nixon, believe it or not, he looks positively judicious when it comes to drugs. To be sure, President Nixon coined the phrase “War on Drugs,” but according to The Fix, Michael Massing’s study of national drug policy, Nixon’s first priority was to honor a 1968 campaign promise to bring the crime numbers down. So he hired a real, honest-to-god pharmacologist and heroin expert, Dr. Jerome Jaffe, to do it. Unlike our last four drug czars, Jaffe was not a moralist (William Bennett), an ex-governor of Florida (Bob Martinez), a police chief (Lee Brown) or a four-star general (Barry McCaffrey). He was a doctor, and he recommended treatment on demand. Nixon gave him hundreds of millions of dollars to open methadone clinics and treatment centers. Sure enough, crime went down. Nixon didn’t have any tenderness for the drug user, but he created better, if not good, drug policy.
Subsequent administrations might have done well to follow Nixon’s example, because the numbers went against them. One of the more absurd contradictions of Drug War rhetoric is the use of an increasing number of arrests, prisoners, or dollars spent in interdiction efforts as evidence of success. Surely they confuse success with total failure. According to a 1999 FBI crime report, there were 328,670 arrests for drug-law violations logged into the FBI system for the year 1973. For the year 1998, that number rose to 1,559,100. Yet more, cheaper and better cocaine and heroin continue to be sold and used every year, like clockwork. Isn’t the Drug War supposed to be creating fewer users? Instead, it is creating more convicts. Right now, 1 out of every 137 U.S. citizens is in jail, and 1 out of every 34 is either in jail, on parole or on probation. For black men, the number is almost 1 in 3. Most of those are from nonviolent drug offenses.
“Cracking down actually has the opposite effect, in terms of affecting drug use and crime,” says Sanho Tree, senior drug-policy analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies. “Drug markets are Darwinian. We’ve been selectively breeding supertraffickers for decades now.”