An often overlooked factor in the success or failure of legislation is the name of the law. Take "No Child Left Behind," federal legislation that was enacted during the George W. Bush administration to set a federal standard for acceptable student performance in elementary, middle, and high schools. Whether No Child Left Behind has accomplished its goals is debatable, but there is no question that the name of the legislation was a stroke of genius. It took a brave legislator to vote against passage of the bill, because a "No" vote implied that some children should be left behind--a stand guaranteed to alienate voters. It was no surprise that No Child Left Behind breezed through the House and Senate.

"Zero Tolerance" for drugs is another concept with a name that is tough to beat. A zero tolerance policy draws a hard line in the sand and anyone who opposes it must be in favor of drugs. But there is a serious problem--zero tolerance sounds good in theory, but doesn't work very well in practice. Testing has become so sophisticated and so sensitive that minute amounts of prohibited substances or their metabolites--amounts that could have been the result of inadvertent contamination and not intentional administration--may be detected.

Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen is working under an administrative stay of a six-month suspension handed down in Texas after one of his horses tested positive for a metabolite of lidocaine. Asmussen has steadfastly asserted that he did not administer the drug, and LSU testing laboratory chemist Steven Barker reportedly testified at a Lone Star Park stewards' hearing that the test results in question were consistent with contamination. Texas has a zero tolerance policy for forbidden substances, however, so any amount is called a positive.

If innocent contamination sounds like a dog-ate-my-homework excuse, consider the following:

  • A paper written by Camargo, Hughes, Lehner, Stirling, and Tobin presented at the 2006 American Association of Equine Practitioners surveyed a body of research showing that as much as 80 per cent of American currency is contaminated with cocaine, sometimes in amounts sufficient to trigger a positive drug test in horses.
  • Tennis star Richard Gasquet was suspended after a positive test for cocaine, then reinstated by the International Tennis Federation when an independent tribunal accepted the excuse that he inadvertently ingested cocaine when kissing a woman he met in a nightclub.
  • In July the FDA warned that a number of over-the-counter nutritional supplements may contain  "hidden" steroids.

Cheaters should be identified and punished, no doubt about it. Ironically, sophisticated testing coupled with zero tolerance leave a significant margin for error, making it too easy to punish the innocent.