Why States are Taking a Fresh Look at Drug-Free Zones
By Teresa Wiltz
In the late 1980s, every state and the District of Columbia had laws that imposed harsh penalties on drug offenses committed near schools.
The idea behind the “drug-free school zones” was to deter dealers at the height of a national crack cocaine epidemic from peddling drugs to children where they could be found most days.
Now those laws are undergoing new scrutiny, as states revisit long sentences for drug crimes that have led to mass incarceration and as they face a new drug epidemic, this time opioid addiction.
Some states, including Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky and Utah, are reducing the size of the drug-free zones as they seek to rid their prisons of so many nonviolent drug offenders with long sentences and as research indicates the zones sometimes fail to steer dealers away from schools.
But other states, such as Arkansas, Hawaii and Texas, are expanding the zones in response to the opioid crisis. They’re adding playgrounds, parks and other areas where children play and imposing heavy penalties for people caught with drugs there, sometimes even for small amounts.
The seemingly contradictory directions states are taking on drug-free zones points to the practical and political difficulties states are having. They’re trying to deter drug abuse, while also seeking to avoid packing prisons with people who receive extended sentences, often with no chance for parole, for being caught with drugs near schools.